The Road to Hell

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the Sixth Sunday of Year A.Torcello - Registres 5 & 6 - Les damnés

Today’s Gospel is a lesson on how to go to Hell. We are being given a sermon by Christ Himself – and He is serious!

Have you deliberately insulted a fellow Christian by calling that person a fool? You will answer for it in hellfire.

Have you failed to restrain lust in your life? You will answer for it in hellfire.

I wish Our Lord hadn’t said those things. It would make my job as a preacher much easier. I could stand up here and say: “Don’t worry folks! God loves us all! We’re all going to heaven, and we’ll all live happily ever after.” But that wasn’t quite the message Jesus came to bring.

A little later in this same speech he will echo a message which John the Baptist gave earlier in the Gospel, that unless we bear good fruit, we are in danger of being cast into the fire.

If we look later in St Matthew’s Gospel, in chapter 18, we find Our Lord repeating his warning that we must cut off our eye, hand or foot if any of these cause us to sin. He means, of course, that we should cut off the behaviour, rather than the limb, but the meaning is clear: If you’re going somewhere you shouldn’t go – if you’re touching something you shouldn’t touch – if you’re looking at something you shouldn’t look at – STOP IT! Stop it right now, and cut it off for good, or face the consequences.

In chapter 23, Jesus will warn us that those who teach one thing but do another – the hypocrites – deserve to be punished in Hell.

In chapter 25, Jesus will present us with the image of the sheep and the goats – with the goats condemned to eternal fire being those who never gave food, drink, clothing or comfort to persons in need. In St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus will illustrate the same theme in the parable of the rich man who went to Hell because he did not feed the beggar, Lazarus, at his gates.

Are we feeling uncomfortable yet?

There are four kinds of sin which Our Lord is explicitly warning us about, because they put us on the fast-track to Hell.

First of all, there is expressing our anger against our brother or sister. It’s no sin to feel angry – but it is a serious sin, to let the anger dominate our reaction. Indeed, we must make the first move to bring peace, even if the fault is not ours. That’s why I devoted a whole sermon, a couple of weeks ago, to the importance of forgiving our enemies.

Second, there are sins connected with the lustful look. With modern printing, television and computer technology, there’s now a whole industry based on treating people as objects, an industry which satisfies lust on demand – for a price. As Christians, we can have no part of it. Jesus is warning us there is no room for compromise here; any answer other than a resounding NO sets us on the road to Hell.

Third, hypocrisy. No Christian should ever need to dismiss a child or an underling with the message “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Fourth, the sin of the goats, a total failure to love those who need our charity.

But take heart!

The picture becomes less bleak when we realise that Our Lord often uses exaggeration to get his point across. If the goats sent to Hell are those who never helped the needy, and the sheep taken up to heaven are those who always helped, where does that leave the rest of us who have offered charity at least sometimes?

There’s clearly a big warning about Hell in today’s passage. But we must read it in the context of the greater message which Jesus came to bring, an invitation to repent of our sins and be carried, by his grace, all the way to Heaven. Any warning from God is an invitation to turn our lives around while we still can. If any of these kinds of sin which Jesus identifies are present in our lives, we can choose today to reject them. We can set out on the road of conversion, the road of virtuous living.

We may need to ask help from a trusted friend so we are not alone in the struggle against temptation. We are invited to make use of the great Sacrament of Reconciliation, through which God forgives our sins and gives us strength to struggle against temptation. We need to fix our eyes not on the warnings of Hell, but on the great teaching that we have a Forgiving Father who welcomes us whenever we come to our senses and return to him. 

The direction we choose determines the destination where we shall dwell. We are called to be people of virtue – passionately committed to living the right values. To behave faithfully is within your power. If you wish, you can keep the commandments. Always seek to repair broken relationships, avoid lust at all costs, shun hypocrisy, and be as generous as you can to the poorest of the poor.  But be careful with the next move of your foot, your hand or your eye – for if you set out in the direction of Hell, you can be sure where you will end up, unless you turn around on the way!

Acknowledgment is due to Revd Ifor Williams for an inspiring Bible Study on “Hell in the teaching of Jesus” which I attended some years ago.

This sermon does not intend to imply that the sins listed above are the only ones which can consign a person to Hell. The Catholic tradition has evolved a broader understanding of what constitutues a “mortal sin”. My intent above is to identify those sins which Jesus explicitly linked to hellfire.

Bonus material for the web:

St Paul knows that God’s wisdom is different from that of the world. The psychologists will give us reasons why it is healthy to vent out our anger, and why we should move on from broken relationships. The adult entertainment industry wants to persuade us that everything is permissible between consenting adults. But the wisdom of Ecclesiasticus is as valid today as it was thousands of years ago. We can choose cooling water or searing fire, eternal life or everlasting death for our souls.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus dangles hope in front of us, too: if we’re in dispute with another Christian, we must make it our business to make peace, even if the dispute wasn’t our fault in the first place. If we fail to make peace, says the Lord, we may be “in prison until we have paid the last penny”. That doesn’t sound good, but it’s not as dire as being condemned for eternity. Could that be a hint about Purgatory?

When Our Lady appeared to three children in Fatima nearly 100 years ago, she warned them: “You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart” – and she taught them to add a prayer to each decade of the rosary for the conversion of sinners. Let’s pray for the conversion of sinners – and act for the conversion of the sinner called “me”!

Keeping Sabbath

Notes from a Sermon preached at a Night Vigil at St Brigid’s, Cardiff.

A Parking Sign restricting Parking except on SundaysThe Sabbath is God’s idea. In Exodus, God commands us to keep the Sabbath (seventh) day holy. On six days the Israelites collected manna; but the double portion of manna on the sixth day would provide for the seventh.

The Jewish people developed an extensive tradition around how the Sabbath should be kept – sometimes protecting the Sabbath by extending a “hedge around the law”, but sometimes finding scope for greater flexibility, by declaring a group of houses or even a whole village an ‘extended home’ within which domestic tasks may take place.

Jesus suggested a pragmatic approach to the Sabbath – if something can’t wait, it should be done on the Sabbath. So you can certainly rescue a boy or an ox from a pit, or heal a sick person. His disciples casually plucked corn for their own use on a Sabbath, and Jesus said the Sabbath was for humanity’s benefit, not to restrict human beings.

It is good for human beings to have a break from their labours. It is good for society that, as far as possible, we should have a shared day devoted to leisure. This creates space for nuclear and extended families to do things together.

Jesus resisted attempts by the Pharisees to pin everything down to detailed laws. Following his example, we should ask ourselves how we live the spirit of the law concerning Sabbath. The Jewish Sabbath run from dusk on Friday to dusk on Saturday; Christians soon started keeping Sunday, the Day of Resurrection, as their day of worship.

There are many paid jobs which are not time-critical. In most circumstances a factory can pause for a day with no damage to its facilities. There are also tasks which clearly need to continue through Sunday – in healthcare and security. Then there is the interesting question of the leisure industry – should some people work on Sunday in service of the many who are taking their collective leisure?

The UK is now a multicultural society where many people do not feel a religious call to Sunday observance. So there are two questions – one, whether Sunday should be preserved as a common day of rest for British Society. The other, how Christians should assert their religious rights to keep Sunday. If 100 Christians assert that Sunday is their day of rest, British society will dismiss them. If 100,000 Christians do, society will take notice!

So here are some questions we may need to ask ourselves:

  • Should I take this job at all, if it requires me to work Sundays? Is the work the kind that ought to be left to other days?
  • Can I negotiate to not work on Sundays? The story of Dan Walker is inspiring in this regard.
  • If I do need to work on Sunday, can I protect time to put my hour in Church first? Can I negotiate time for worship?
  • If I have leisure pursuits (e.g. sports teams) which need Sunday time, can I keep those committments and put God first?
  • If I work regularly on Sunday, when do I have my personal Sabbath?
  • If one or both parents work on Sunday, can we create a fixed time in the week which is family-together time, when distracting electronic devices are turned off?

No preacher can give clear rules that will cover everyone’s personal circumstances. But these principles will help – and for deeper reflection, see Pope (now Blessed) John Paul II’s Dies Domini.

Young Disciples

Homily at St Philip Evans for the Presentation of the Lord, 2014.

Blessed Laura Vicuna and St Dominic SavioInsanity is doing the same thing again and expecting a different outcome.”

Today, the second of February, is the day on which the Church remembers how the Christ-child was presented to God in the Temple in Jerusalem. It was the customary thing to do – and more than that, it was required by the Jewish Law.

I would like us to spend a moment reflecting on the ways we present our children before God in our Temple, which is St Philip Evans Church.

When we present babies to be baptised, we’re asking God to make them members of God’s own family, so they receive the right to call God, “Father”. Baptism works without fail – if a person too young to understand, or old enough who agrees, receives the water of baptism,* it always bears fruit. That person becomes a member of the Church, and any personal sins already committed are washed away – there will be no time served in purgatory for sins committed before baptism!

When we present our Year 3 children to make their First Holy Communion, we are asking God to feed them with the body and blood of Jesus. Because an ordained priest has consecrated bread and wine using the rites of the Catholic Church, we have no doubt that the bread and wine have truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. Our children receive Jesus. Our duty is to help them recognise that what they are receiving is truly holy and deserves the greatest respect. If we failed to do that, we would give Our Lord great dishonour!

But what happens when our children reach the age of 12 or 13? We present them again to be confirmed. The bishop comes and lays his hands on them. Within a few months, if not weeks, our young people stop attending Mass. Many will not choose to follow the full teachings of the Catholic Church ever again. What is going wrong?

Confirmation is the sacrament by which baptised Catholics ask God to fill them anew with the Holy Spirit. The candidates already received the Holy Spirit in baptism, to make them holy – members of Christ’s Church. In confirmation they ask to receive God’s Spirit in a new way – to bring courage, power, and wisdom to do God’s work in the world.

But what happens if the Bishop confirms a young person who isn’t really interested in choosing to live life God’s way? That young person is still recognised by God as “confirmed” but the help God wants to give is blocked. If the young person doesn’t want to ask for God’s help, it will not be given. If that young person has serious sin in their life which is not being taken to confession, the power of the sacrament of confirmation is blocked, until such time as the young person repents and goes to confession.

So now, I want to say a word directly to the young people in our congregation. If you are attending High School and have not yet been confirmed, this is a message for you. And if you are still in Primary School, listen carefully, because I am talking about your future, too!

My dear young friends, for many years now the Church has been letting you down. I am not speaking particularly about this parish, or even about the whole of England and Wales – the Catholic Church across the developed world has been letting you down. Our priests and catechists have not been helping you to live the Christian life in the way Jesus is challenging us to live it. Our expectations of you have been too low.

Today’s Second Reading tells us that Jesus became “like us in every way”. It tells us that Jesus entered fully into our experience of being human. But have you ever spotted the flip side of that? This means that you, my dear young friends, are invited to “become like Jesus in every way”! Jesus became so human that we can become quite like him!

What do I mean by that?

Jesus went to the synagogue, regularly. If you are serious about becoming a disciple of Jesus, you must make a personal choice to come to weekend Mass. This is where Jesus teaches us through his Word. This is where Jesus feeds us with His Body and Blood. This is where the community of Jesus comes together. This is where you belong.

Jesus went out of his way to help people. If you are serious about becoming a disciple of Jesus, you too must have a spirit of service. This might mean going out to volunteer for some special project. Or it might just mean making a point of being helpful within your home and classroom. But Jesus did good to those who deserved it and to those who didn’t deserve it alike. This is what He asks you to do, too.

Jesus took time to pray. If you are serious about becoming a disciple of Jesus, our parish duty is to help you to listen to deeply to God’s Word and respond in praise, petition, sorrow and thanksgiving.

Jesus did some pretty amazing miracles too! Now, when I say that we can become like Jesus in every way, surely I don’t mean stuff like healing people and speaking God’s word straight into their lives?

Don’t underestimate what God’s Spirit can do! In every age God has raised up saints who can work miracles, from St Peter in the Gospels to Padre Pio in the 20th century. They were all young people once! If you open yourself up fully to God’s Spirit, there is no limit on the ways God can use you to bless other people. The late great Blessed John Paul II often said to young people – “Do not be afraid to become saints of the New Millennium”. Aim high! See where God takes you!

I am announcing today a new way of preparing for Confirmation in St Philip Evans Parish. Being confirmed will no longer depend on attending a “Confirmation Course”. Instead, our confirmation catechists are going to become personal mentors who will work with you individually. Because you are under 18 we still have to follow Child Protection rules, which mean the mentors will meet with you in different corners of the church building at the same time, but your mentor will be your personal coach in helping you live out the values of the Catholic Church. I will not be inviting Archbishop George to come and confirm anyone this year, 2014. I will not be putting anyone’s name forward to be confirmed until you have spent at least 12 months having a monthly session with a mentor and showing that you are serious about attending Mass, serving others, and connecting with God through prayer. I believe that you can do this, and I have great faith in you!

There’s a song I used to sing at Sunday School – the last line said to Jesus, let me discover “that following you is the greatest adventure of all”. I’ve been having that adventure from the time when I discovered Jesus was real at the age of eleven. Since then, the adventure has taken me to many different places and through lots of ups and downs in my emotional life. It’s not always been easy, but Jesus is still with me.

The thing is, this isn’t an adventure that you should have have to go on alone – this is why we are offering mentors to support you. Next month, on Thursday 6th March, we will be holding a launch meeting at 5.30 p.m. to explain more fully this new way of preparing for confirmation, and then we will be offering you a monthly mentoring meeting on Thursdays. If you are at Secondary School – and that includes Year 7 – you are invited to take part. Let the adventure begin!

Now, a final word to parents. We heard in today’s First Reading that when the Lord entered the Temple, he would “purify the sons of Levi”. This shows that even the Jewish priests could, at times, lose their fervour for doing things in the right way. There will always be times when we need to look at the way we do things in the Church and say “this needs refreshing”. That’s what I am trying to do here with preparation for Confirmation.

Some of you will no doubt feel anxious about this change. Can’t we go back to the old method, where we put the children on a short course and then call in the Archbishop? No. A short course is not the answer. Requiring our young people to come to sessions for 6 or 10 weeks will not make them disciples.

But surely, some of you will ask, confirmation will do the young people some good? Remember what I said a few minutes ago. “Insanity is doing the same thing again and expecting a different outcome.” All the evidence shows us that confirmation does not turn a young person into a follower of Jesus. It only gives power and strength to someone who already wants to make the journey. But if we have young people who wish to be committed church members, their lives will indeed be transformed with power when they become confirmed.

In today’s Gospel, the human parents of Jesus “did what the law required”. Our Church’s own teaching says that a young person is not ready for confirmation until they are ready and willing to live as followers of Jesus. So let us do what the law requires – and then our children will also be blessed, and will truly become light to the world.

* Let the reader understand that by “the water of baptism”, the right form of words accompanying it is implied!

With grateful thanks to Hannah Vaughan-Spruce for inspiring part of this homily.