Building Believers

Homily at St Joseph’s, Guildford, for members of the Homegroups and participants in a recent Alpha course.

Readings: Acts 2:42-47 and Matthew 10:7-15.

“As you go, proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand.”

Last weekend, at Sunday Mass, we heard Jesus send 72 of his followers to announce his coming in the villages he was about to visit.

Tonight, he commands his 12 apostles to announce his message as they go along, and to stay in each town as long as they were welcome.

I’ve got good news for you. You don’t have to go anywhere. You’re already where God wants you to be – the Gospel has spread from Galilee to Guildford, from Samaria to Surrey! Sometimes, especially when we are open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, we will speak a life-changing word to a person we meet only once. But the most likely way we will spread the Good News of Jesus is with the people whose lives interact with ours on a daily basis.

Last Saturday night, I did something very Biblical. Jesus often ate with tax collectors. I sat down and had dinner with some bankers! It was the 25-year reunion of my undergraduate physics class. Lots of physics graduates end up working in finance. I, of course, took a slightly different route, first a PhD in astrophysics, then seminary, and now nine years working as a priest. Naturally I wore my clerical collar rather than a black tie – it’s a great conversation starter!

I was seated next to a student who’d started a year after me. She was from a Catholic family – her uncle was a priest – but she wasn’t a churchgoer. I’ll call her Shirley, though that’s not her name. We haven’t had a conversation for 20 years, and there we were, former physics students, now a banker and a Catholic priest.

Naturally, the conversation turned to religion. “But you can’t believe everything the Catholic Church teaches, surely, you’re a scientist trained to question evidence!”

“As a scientist, I know that our beliefs have to be based on evidence, and my beliefs are based on what Jesus actually said and did.”

“But you can’t believe that what’s in the Bible accurately represents Jesus, surely, people must have changed and spun it through the years?”

“We have accurate manuscripts, radio-carbon dated, to early centuries after Jesus. And I have spent time studying the different influences on the way the Bible is communicated so I can understand what is authentic!”

She wasn’t convinced. She was scandalised that I was willing to accept the written message of the Jesus-of-then, rather than my own sense of relating to the Jesus-of-now, as authoritative.

I’ll tell you something even more scandalous! Did you hear it in our reading from Acts? It didn’t say the first Christians devoted themselves to the teaching of Jesus – it said they met to listen to the teaching of the Apostles!

Jesus didn’t write a book. Our faith is not like Islam, which claims that an angel dictated God’s word directly. We believe that God lived among us, told stories, and instructed 12 chosen Apostles to pass on the message – authenticating what they did by giving them the power to heal and pass on the Holy Spirit to those who received their word!

Today, our Pope and our bishops are the successors of the apostles. From the vast store of Christian wisdom, they choose to issue documents highlighting those teachings which are most useful to our life in the 21st century. St John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis each bring their own eye to the needs of the church and the world. When I step up to the pulpit to preach, I come not with my own opinions, but with the Teaching of the Apostles.

There was a second thing that bothered Shirley at that black tie dinner – it was a comment I have also heard from many parents who have asked to have their children baptised. Surely you don’t have to go to Church to be a good person, to be a Christian?

Well, let’s look at what the first followers of Jesus did.

They were attentive to the Teaching of the Apostles. Now, in the Internet Age, you certainly don’t have to leave home to learn something, but here in Guildford, in the Homegroups, you meet to deepen your understanding of the Teaching of the Apostles. It is good, and human, to meet to discuss these things.

They met for the “breaking of bread”. I have yet to meet a parent who says “we don’t have to go to church to be a Christian” who claims to have celebrated the “breaking of bread” at home. It’s what we do in Church, the Eucharist with an ordained priest presiding.

From the writings of Justin Martyr, we know that in the early days of the Church, the Christians gathered to hear the Word of God read for as long as time allowed (don’t worry, I won’t do that tonight!) followed by a sermon. Then the minister presiding “gave thanks at considerable length” – I like to imagine a long, charismatic prayer at this point. Later, when the Roman Empire legalised the Church, they had to recruit a lot more priests quickly, and only then did Eucharistic Prayers get written down and circulated.

In the Homegroups, we don’t often meet for the breaking of bread, but it is good that we are here tonight, offering Mass to give thanks for the cycle of activity now ending and to pray for the year to come. I’d like to say a special word to those among you who are followers of Jesus, but not members of the Catholic Church.

It can seem awkward, on a night like this, that we do not invite other Christians to communion. But there is a certain integrity about that. Each of you will have your own reasons for belonging to the church you do belong to. When a Catholic minister holds up the consecrated Host and says “the body of Christ”, he or she is saying, abbreviated, “We believe that Jesus commanded the Church to ordain priests with the power to turn bread and wine into His true body and blood; we are one body in Christ because we receive Holy Communion and accept the teaching of the Apostles, given through the Bishop of Rome.” If you are tempted to ask “But why can’t I receive?” then ask yourself this: “Why am I not a Catholic?” The answer to both questions is the same. Yet we can worship together in all other aspects, sing the same songs, say the same prayers. Let us focus not on the one thing which divides us, but the many things which unite.

The early Christians were faithful “to the fellowship”. That’s another reason for coming to church. To have fellowship, we have to be together – stay-at-home Christians miss out. The very word “church” in Greek is “ekklesia” which means “the gathered community”, the “people called-out”. As a church, we are only as strong as our fellowship with one another.

It’s a sign of the strong community in the Homegroups that I am here with you 10 years after leaving Surrey. Yet in those 10 years, some of you have been in regular touch by post, and others have opened your dining tables, homes and spare rooms to me over the years. Don’t take that for granted – there are not many Catholic parishes in this country where you can find the same sense of community.

Now, community isn’t always easy. We don’t always get on with each other. But the Lord taught us to pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. Now, think of the church member you get on with least well. In your mind’s eye, picture the gates of heaven. Jesus is there, standing next to that person. Jesus says: “You can come in, as long as you don’t mind spending eternity together!”

The early Christians were faithful “to the prayers”. Now, that’s one thing you CAN do at home. But the Bible affirms the power of “two or three” praying together. Asking God for help is quite intuitive. But a true Christian knows who God is, and chooses to worship.

So here we are tonight, to worship. As we look back on the cycle of activities now closing, let’s give thanks. Thanks for the teaching received. Thanks for the Masses we have attended. Thanks for the friendships made and restored in our fellowship. Thanks for those prayers which have been answered.

Let’s also pray for the future, for the new year of life which will pick up from September. Let’s pray for a deepening of our commitment to understand the Teaching of the Apostles. Let’s pray for vocations, so we will always have priests for the breaking of bread – perhaps God is calling someone here tonight to the ministry of the altar, as a priest or deacon. Let’s pray for new members in our Homegroup Fellowship, and the courage to invite people to come – to come to know Christ, to come to Alpha, to join the Homegroups. And perhaps I could ask you to pray for “Shirley” – God knows her real name – that after our conversation, she begins to understand that the Gospels are trustworthy and that she is truly invited to be part of our church, with all its human flaws.

Jesus chose 72 and send them out around Israel. Jesus chose 12 and send them to the ends of the earth. Jesus chose YOU and sends you to Surrey. “As you go, proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand.”

They were faithful to the Teachings of the Apostle, to the breaking of bread, to the fellowship and the prayers. Do this, and the same Holy Spirit who worked wonders through them will most surely work through you, too!