The Great Christmas “Sake Of”

Homily at St Philip Evans for Christmas Day 2016.

2016 has been a year marked by big decisions, ones which will shape our future for years to come. I’m sure that this Christmas, many of you are deeply unsettled by one particular leap into the unknown that we’re about to take.

Am I talking about a new American president? No, that’s an ocean away.

Am I talking about Brexit? No, that’s a couple of years off at least, and I don’t want to talk politics today.

What I’m referring to, of course, is the Great British Bake-Off. After the two Christmas Specials, Bake-Off will leave the BBC for good. When it arrives on Channel 4, it will be the same, only different. Who knows what it will be like then?

There’s something very homely about Bake-Off. It’s about ordinary people gathering in a tent, somewhere out-of-the-way, and doing the everyday activity of working in a kitchen. The series winner gets lots of fame, but only a small prize – it’s as much about the taking part as the winning. And I think that makes Bake-Off very Christmassy indeed!

So come with me for a moment to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas, a homely tale of a tent pitched in a place where people gather, a story which begins with a bun in the oven and ends in the House of Bread.


What we’re honouring by coming to Church today is the birth of a child. Greek scholars will tell you that when the Bible says Jesus lived among us, the literal wording says “The Word become flesh and pitched his tent among us.” This tent was not planted in an idyllic country estate, but in the turmoil of the Middle East, under a vast empire controlled from Rome.

What we’re celebrating is not just the birth of a baby. All babies are special. This one was divine. Nine months ago, on the Feast of the Annunciation, the church celebrated the day when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to a young maiden and asked her to become the mother of God. For nine months, the Virgin Mary kept him safe in her womb – there’s an ancient French carol which imagines Mary as a “bakerwoman” who received a grain to bake into golden bread. When we see Christian art, how do we know that a woman is Mary? Often, it’s because she’s holding the Christ-child. You could say that was her “signature bake”.

In ancient Israel, they had a strange custom about bread. Every week, twelve flat loaves were baked and placed on a special table in the Jewish Temple – it was called the “Bread of the Lord’s Presence”. At the end of the week, the priests ate the bread and put fresh loaves on the table. Normally it was kept hidden in the Holy Place where only the priests could see it, but three times a year, on major Jewish holidays, they brought out the bread and showed it to the people. When they did this, the priests cried out: “Behold, God’s love for you!” For the Jewish people, seeing this holy bread was as close as you could come on earth to seeing God’s face.

When did those three festivals take place? They were all festivals of thanksgiving. The Passover marked the first fruits of the harvest and the memory of the Hebrews being rescued from slavery in Egypt; that became our Easter. Seven weeks later, more crops would be harvested; that became our Pentecost. The third took place in late September, and the Jewish people would live in tents or booths for a few days, remembering how they were wanderers in the desert. We don’t have an equivalent Christian festival in September – we are celebrating Christmas now, in December. But we have no reason to believe Jesus was born on December 25th – the Church took over an old Roman festival of daylight triumphing over darkness in winter. Rather, the scholars tell us that the time of year when shepherds would be watching their flocks by night was late September. It was close to when the Jewish people were keeping their festival of booths that we saw the Word become flesh and pitch his tent among us!

Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The Hebrew name “Bethlehem” means the house of bread. The shepherds came and found baby Jesus lying in a manger. But what’s a manger? The name comes from the French manger, meaning “to eat”. It’s a trough for food. So here’s the story so far: God becomes a small baby, is born in “the house of bread” and is placed in a food trough. This same baby would grow into a man, a religious teacher and healer, who would say “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.” All very mysterious! But then, the night before he was taken to be executed, he gave us his showstopper! He blessed bread and wine and told his friends, “This is my Body and Blood. Take it, eat it, drink it. Remember!”

In a few moments, I will use the following words to lead into the consecration of bread and wine on this altar:

For in the mystery of the Word made flesh, a new light of your glory has shone upon the eyes of our mind, so that as we recognise in him God made visible, we may be caught up through him in love of things invisible.

A “mystery” means something with a deep meaning we can ponder deeply, just as Mary pondered the message that angels had appeared in the sky singing songs of glory before the shepherds came. 3000 years ago, God-the-Father established a rule that there should be “bread of God’s presence” in the Temple. 2000 years ago, God-the-Son was born in the house of bread and asked us to eat and drink his body and blood. This Christmas, I would like to offer you an invitation to enter deeply into this mystery.

In these few minutes, I don’t have time to address some really deep questions. Who is Jesus? Why did he die? How does God guide us? How can I resist evil? How can I make the most of my life? These questions are worth exploring, and these are some of the topics in our parish Alpha Course which begins on January 10th, and runs on Tuesday evenings until Easter. There’s an invitation to Alpha in your order of service.

Yes, we live in a time of great upheaval. Great things beyond our control will change in the world of politics. The Great British Bake-Off will be reinvented by Channel 4. Some will love it, some will hate it. God will not prevent us from experiencing change and uncertainty. But there is one thing that God does offer us – God wants to be with us. In a moment, we will say the Creed, the summary of what all Christians believe, and because it is Christmas, we will pause and kneel down when we hear that God became a human being. But why? It’s what happens next that’s the key. “He suffered under Pontius Pilate” – for our sake. This is God’s love for you. This is the “Great Christmas Sake-Of” – baby Jesus was born to die for your sake. To find out why, I invite you to try Alpha!

Thanks to Alan de Ste Croix for a copy of Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist which partially inspired this sermon.



Great Expectations: Worship

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Third Sunday of Advent, Year A.


There’s a person in prison for what he believes. His name is John.

What were the beliefs that landed him in prison?

He believes that God is real. He believes that God expects people to behave in a certain way. He had preached a simple message: God is coming soon. You can be friends with God – but you have to change. You have to live your life God’s way.

For King Herod, living by God’s law would have meant separating from the woman he called his wife. That’s why the king had put John in prison.

John is worried. He’s gambled his whole life on his belief that God is coming soon. Now he’s in prison and may soon be executed. Has his gamble paid off?

In his prison, he’s asking the same questions we’re all likely to ask in times of stress. “What can I do when life gets hard? Where is God in all of this?”

The answer John finds is rather unique. He knows that the prophet Isaiah said that when the blind and the lame were healed, it would be a sign that God himself is coming. Now he’s heard rumours that his own cousin, Jesus, is healing people. And more than that, Jesus sends back a message “I am giving Good News to the poor – don’t lose faith in me!”
But do we have faith in Jesus?

For many of us, something inside us resists seeing who Jesus really is.

If Jesus were really our Teacher and Judge, we would have to put aside our own ideas about right and wrong, and find out what Jesus thinks.

If Jesus really wants us to celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, then we have to adjust our plans for sports, hobbies and socialising to make room for him.

If Jesus really loved me, I would have to look again at that big negative image of myself I secretly think is the real me. If Jesus sees good in me, I can’t be so bad really!

Jesus had a way of asking difficult questions. “Why were you so interested in John the Baptist?” he said to the crowd around him. If he were here today, he might say, “What are you doing at Mass on a Sunday morning? Are you jumping through hoops so your children can have First Communion? Have you come out of a sense of ‘habit’, because it feels as comfortable as an old sweater, or because your friends are here? Or do you really believe that when you attend Mass, you’re taking part in the one thing which delights the God who created you more than any other human activity?”


This morning, I wanted to give you a really good reason why you should worship God. In fact, our word-of-the-week is “Worship”.

I could tell you that when you’re in love, it’s natural to say affectionate things to the person you love. But perhaps you haven’t fallen in love with God yet.

I could tell you that if you could only sense how awesome God is, you would instinctively bow down and adore. But if you can sense that, I won’t need to explain.

I could tell you that my main reason for worshipping God is that Jesus said “Do this in memory of me”, and I made a decision when I was 19 years old that I was going to do what Jesus asked me for the rest of my life. But if you haven’t already decided to follow Jesus, that won’t help you at all.

In fact, I’ve reached a stark conclusion.

There is NOTHING I can say in this sermon which will make you believe in Jesus, if you don’t already have faith.

I can only promise you that if God gives you the gift of faith, he will help you to deal with all the obstacles that seem scary when you don’t have faith.

Only God can give the gift of faith. When I was 11 years old, I prayed – not because I was curious, but because I was hurting and needed to know the answer – “God, if you are real, show me.”

God did.

That’s why I became a Catholic.

That’s when I realised that there was nothing I could do on any weekend which was more important than coming to take part in Mass and receive Holy Communion.

You could ask God too, show you whether he’s really there.

Don’t be afraid.


Some of you have been given the gift of faith. Some of you are confident that when you receive Holy Communion, it is Jesus himself who nourishes you in body and soul. I have a challenge for you, too. My challenge is to go deeper. Every weekday in school time, we have a time of adoration. We place the body of Jesus on the altar in the Prayer Room. Members of our Indian community have a rota, so that Jesus is never left alone. Often they come as families and spend hours singing hymns and offering prayers.

What about our wider community? I’d like to challenge the rest of us to take adoration seriously. I’ve made an agreement with the regular adorers that the first hour of adoration each day will be in silence. So you can come along at half past ten on a weekday, knowing that your own prayers won’t be disturbed by someone else’s for that hour.

Why not come and try it out?

Even if you are not sure if God is real, why not come and give God the benefit of the doubt?


There’s a person in prison because of what they don’t believe.

They don’t believe Jesus is real.

Or if they know Jesus is real, they don’t believe he can change their life for the better.

If that person is you, Jesus would like to set you free today.

I’m praying that you find the courage to say “Yes” to Jesus. John did. Mary did. I did. You can, too.



Great Expectations: Connect

connectHomily at St Philip Evans, for the Second Sunday of Advent, 2016.

Once again, I’d like to invite the children preparing to make their First Holy Communion next summer to come and sit together at the front.

How many of you have brothers or sisters living at home with you?

How many of you never argue with your brothers or sisters?

How many of you argue with your brothers or sisters pretty much every day?

Being part of the Church is like being part of a really big family. There will be some people you’ll get on with really well. There’ll be other people you won’t get on with at all.

Once, at priest training college, there was a student who asked me to help him with a particular project. He wasn’t someone I naturally clicked with as a friend. But he had asked for my help, and I persevered. Slowly a real friendship grew. It is within our power to make any stranger into a friend!

St Paul talked about “tolerating” other people the way Jesus did. Often when I read the stories of Jesus, I imagine him looking at his disciples and having a face-palm moment: “Don’t you lot get the idea yet?” – but He persevered.

Sometimes we are stuck with people we don’t get on with – in school, or in our First Communion class. One of the most important things we have to learn is to be kind and helpful to people we don’t like.It’s easy to be kind to people we do like. Everybody does that! Jesus came to teach us to be kind to the people who get on our nerves!

St Therese of Lisieux was so irritated by the way one nun clicked her rosary beads, she made a firm resolution to be extra-kind to that sister so that no bitter feelings could poison that relationship. When St Therese died, the clicky nun was very surprised to read that in St Therese’s journal – from the way she’d been smiled at, she thought she was one of the saint’s favourite sisters!

Last week, I promised to talk about six words which are our Catholic family values. This week’s word is CONNECT. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the first Christians were faithful to “meeting together”. Why? Our task is to build a community where every person is loved. Sometimes we do that by helping strangers in need. But the best way to love our neighbours is by spending time getting to know them – especially the ones we don’t naturally get on with. So we have to do more than just be kind to people when we are in school in church or in First Communion class. We must choose to spend time with other Catholics because they are Catholics. If you’re in a Catholic School, that’s easy! But the grown-ups aren’t, so I need a word with them for a moment.

Our Parish Mission theme was “Great Expectations”. I believe that God has certain expectations of us as members of His Church. I believe that God expects us to more than just attend Mass together. Imagine a family where all the members went to the cinema together, but never spoke to each other when they got home! That would be a really dysfunctional family. We can do better than that!

I would like each of you to think of one way you could have a conversation with Catholics, because they are Catholics, at least once a month. Here are some ideas:

  • Come to coffee after Mass on the second Sunday of each month.
  • Come to Alpha or Call to Question, or one of the Homegroups I will be putting in place after Christmas.
  • Have a chat with the person who is sitting next to you after Mass.
  • Join an organisation like the Union of Catholic Mothers (for women), or the Catenians or the Knights of Columba (for men).
  • Invite a member of you own family to have a faith-filled conversation. If they go to Mass somewhere else, you could even compare notes on the sermons you heard this weekend!

The prophet Isaiah had a vision of a perfect society of peace – the lion and the lamb lying down together.

St Paul wrote to the Romans with a vision of an imperfect society – one that needed toleration. We people who belong to the Church are not perfect. You might have heard the saying: “The Church is full of sinners – and there’s always room for one more!”

A preacher often has to speak about the way we behave. There are some behaviours which are not welcome in a Church community. But there must be no PEOPLE who are unwelcome in a Church community. Even the Pharisees and Sadducees were welcome in John the Baptist’s community, as long as they were willing to truly change.

My vision of a Christian society is one where we choose to meet with other Catholics on a regular basis. If we don’t do that yet, that might be a change God is asking us to make in 2017. Where, when and how we do this will be different for each one of us. But it is a choice we can all make, and review each year. Only connect!

Now, back to the children. I have a challenge for you. If you are at St Bernadette’s school, I’d like you to talk to at least one pupil from St Philip Evans school each week. And the same the other way round! By the end of the First Communion course, can you find someone who supports the same sports team, or has the same hobby as you? Be careful – I might check up after Easter!