Who do you think you are?

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.A tree with six logos as fruit - think-bubble, hand, heart, pound sign, envelope, cross

Who do you think you are?

There’s a television programme by that name, which helps celebrities trace their family trees. This can be a risky business! Olympic rower Matthew Pinsent discovered that he was a descendent of King Edward the First! But consumer rights campaigner Esther Rantzen discovered that her great grandfather became a fugitive, accused of serious fraud!

The good news is that our family tree doesn’t define who we are. In the words of Jesus we hear today, we are told that we are “salt for the earth and light for the world”. If we read further in the New Testament, we find other passages which speak about who we are in Christ.

This is Good News! Jesus wants to give us our identity, our security, and our authority.

Did you stop for a moment as you entered this church to bless yourself with Holy Water? If you did, you reminded yourself that you were baptised “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. By baptism, you were made a member of the Body of Christ and adopted as a son in God’s family – yes ladies, that includes you too! You are the body of Christ and individually members of it (I Cor 12:27): your baptism gives you your identity in Christ.

As members of Christ’s body, we are invited to receive His Body and Blood in Holy Communion. Just before we come forward for communion, we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We ask for our “daily bread”. But what are we asking for? One meaning is “give us what we need for life today”. Jesus told us not to be anxious about the basics of life because our Heavenly Father knows all our needs (Mt 6:24-34). But the word we translate as “daily” has two meanings in Greek, and St Jerome – who made the first great translation of the Bible into Latin – couldn’t decide which one was meant. In his version of St Matthew’s Gospel he chose the other possible translation – give us today our supernatural bread, the bread which has come down from heaven. We believe that every time we receive Holy Communion, our venial sins are forgiven and we are re-connected to Heaven, receiving the Bread of Life which we must eat to inherit eternal life (Jn 6:36-69). Receiving Holy Communion gives you your security in Christ.

To be a full member of the Catholic Church, you must receive three sacraments: Baptism, Holy Communion, and Confirmation. Here in the West, we usually wait until the age of about 13 for confirmation. But in Kerala, where it is called the “sacrament of anointing”, it is given to babies when they are baptised. In both East and West, the minister declares that this is a “seal” of the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the ancient word a seal was used in the way we use an identity card or passport today. But it’s not our own identity card – it’s God’s! And when we are sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit, God promises us power to be his representative in the church and in the world. It was that power St Paul was writing about in his letter today. Being anointed with Chrism gives you your authority in Christ.

So who do you think you are?

Jesus thinks you are the salt of the earth. You have the power to make the world around you a better place, just as salt can cure meat and grit treacherous paths.

Jesus thinks you are the light of the world. That’s high praise, coming from Him! In St John’s Gospel (8:12) He called Himself the Light of the World, and said that if we followed him, we would make it to Heaven. Wow! That’s a challenge! Jesus says you must be the kind of person that if other people imitate your behaviour, they will go to heaven!

What kind of actions is God looking for? The First Reading instructs us to support the hungry and the poor; we do this through our taxes and through giving to charity, in the form of money or the foodbank and clothesbank we have here. We’ll have an opportunity to help some very special people at the end of today’s Mass, when we take a collection to help handicapped children visit Lourdes this Easter.The Bible suggests that for people who don’t know about Jesus, such good works will be enough to get them to heaven (Rom 2:12-16).

Now, it’s also true that Jesus warned us not to show off our good deeds in front of other people – in fact that’s in the very next chapter of the same Gospel (Mt 6:1). He’s concerned that we don’t get proud about our good deeds. But as long as our motivation isn’t to show off, we’re not to hide our Christian actions either – because otherwise we can’t inspire other people to follow us to heaven.

Is it enough to only do good works to help the poor? NO! You are forgetting your identity in Christ.

We are God’s family. We know the family secret, that to have life to the full, we must receive the Bread of Heaven. The example that God wants us to set for others is the example of being people who come every week to receive our supernatural bread! By doing this, we can help people who follow our example find their security in Christ. Remember, Jesus Himself said that if we do not eat of his flesh we will not have life within us! (Jn 6:53)

So who do you think you are?

If you think you’re a good person who doesn’t know Jesus, being kind to needy people will probably get you into heaven.

But if you’re a Catholic and know you’re a member of God’s family, God expects more of you! You are the salt of the earth! You have your identity, your security and your authority from being a brother or sister of Christ our King! But if you lose your saltiness, look out – even God’s identity card won’t get you through the gates of heaven if you claim to be like Jesus but turn out to be a fraud!


The Shadow of Death

A gravestone inscribed "In memory of all innocent victims of abortion"Homily at St Philip Evans, on the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A – today the parish hosts the SPUC White Flower Appeal.

Who are the people who dwell in the land of deep shadow?

This reading applies to us. Sadly, for the last 50 years, Great Britain has been a land of great shadow – the shadow of death.

In 1945, our nation celebrated its hard-won freedom from the threat of invasion, but in 1967, Parliament decided to make it legal to destroy a child in the womb up to the 28th week of pregnancy. In 1990 the time-limit was changed to 24 weeks – but no time limit would apply to a child which was seriously handicapped in mind or body.

We’re going to hear a lot about this in 2017, because October marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Abortion Act. (Embryo research has also been in the news this week.) I’m sure we’re all aware of the official Catholic position that abortion is wrong under all circumstances. We know what we’re supposed to believe. But perhaps no-one has ever talked about why the Church reached that conclusion, or why this is so important that we might seek to impose our point of view on people who don’t share our faith.

When it comes to questions of human life, we can look in three directions. We can look to science, we can look to philosophy, and we can look to God.

Science is good at answering practical questions. We can ask at what age a growing baby can feel pain, or survive outside its mother’s womb. We can ask at what age it becomes impossible for an embryo to split into identical twins, or fuse into a chimera. But what science can’t do is tell us what moral value we should put on these findings.

Philosophy is the art of “thinking about thinking”. We live in a society of thinking human beings who have lots of different opinions, people who follow different religions. A century ago, most of our laws in Britain could be traced back to the Bible. Now, lots of people reject the Bible and our lawmakers instead ask how we make laws that leaves everybody free to do whatever they like, as long as no-one hurts anybody else.

That’s usually a good starting point – as long as we agree what we mean by “anybody else”. American politics has been in the news a lot this week, including reminders of the time in the nineteenth century when to be a “person” meant to be a “white person, not a black slave”. In Nazi Germany, Jews, Gypsies and Slavs were famously labelled as Untermensch, or “subhumans”. I’m not talking about race, today, though – our question is when a baby in the womb starts counting as a “person”.

Science can tell us some interesting facts. At about 14 days, the embryo can no longer split into twins. At 17 days, the first nerves are beginning to grow. We know how to keep a baby alive in an incubator when it’s just over 23 weeks old. But science can’t tell me when I became a person. Am I a person because I can think? Am I a person because I can feel pain? If I’m not an identical twin, did I mysteriously become a person at that moment when I was 14 days old and nothing significant happened?

Does the Bible say anything helpful? There’s a law in the Old Testament that makes it clear that harming someone else’s unborn child is a crime, and Scripture includes many beautiful words about how God “knit us together in our mother’s womb”. Throughout the Bible, we keep hearing that human beings are “made in the image of God”, and Genesis tells us that because we are human, we are “very good”. But there is no explicit teaching in the Bible about when we should start having the rights which belong to a human person, or about when a child in the womb is granted its soul.

We do, of course, recognise that Jesus was God-made-man from the first moment when He was present in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and this was noted by Pope St Gregory the Great (Moralia in Job, Book XVIII, Paragraph 85). And in Matthew chapter 18, verse 5, Jesus calls forward a little child and says “when you welcome a child in my name, you welcome me”. We know, therefore, that there is something “holy” about every human person, however young, and in the absence of a clear reason not to do so, our Popes have consistently taught that every child must be “treated as” a precious human person from the moment of conception.

In today’s second reading, St Paul acknowledges that philosophy on its own can’t lead us to what God wants us to know – we have to heed what God has revealed. The golden rule that Jesus taught us was to treat others the way we wish to be treated ourselves. We can all* trace our identity back to a single-celled embryo which was necessary and sufficient to develop into a mature human being. How would you have wished to be treated when you were a single cell?

We do indeed live in a democratic society where we respect the freedom of other people to make their own decisions. But in a democracy, who speaks for the voiceless? Who decides whether a child in the womb is “another person”?

Yes, of course if we insist that human dignity begins at the moment of conception, this takes away options that some unwilling parents may wish to keep open. But in a democracy, we are all responsible for making decisions on behalf of the voiceless, and we remember that Jesus called on us to welcome children in his name. St John Paul II warned us of the dangers of creating a “Culture of Death” which believes that human life can be treated as disposable. He asked us to create a “Culture of Life” which recognises that every human life is made in God’s image, and by sharing the gift of humanity, every human is “very good”.

So, my dear friends in Christ, we have a choice. We can live in a nation which says that you are valuable because you have a certain ability to think your own thoughts, or carry out useful actions, or survive without support. Or, when we are asked to make decisions on behalf of the voiceless, we can suggest that every human being is precious because of their own humanity. Wouldn’t you like to help create a world where every human being is treated with respect because she, or he, is made in the image of God?

Jesus began his teaching by saying “Repent! God’s Kingdom is at hand!” In the same way we must be a voice which declares: “Change your thinking! Treat every human being as beautiful, precious, and very good!” Choose life! And God’s light will once again shine upon our land.

Bonus material for internet readers:

Why does today’s first reading mention the “Day of Midian”? This was also a day when light triumphed over darkness, Gideon’s army winning an unlikely victory by revealing the light they carried hidden in their jars.

Why did I not mention Matthew’s Last Judgement – where Jesus says “whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me”? At first sight, this seems like an obvious passage. Many scholars, however, argue that because Jesus speaks about “the least of my brothers” he is referring to the way we welcome those who share our Christian faith, not vulnerable humans in general. If becoming a “brother” depends on faith, it can only apply to children able to speak. If a baptised infant can be a “brother”, even then, a child must be born before it can be baptised. But the value which Jesus places on a child in Matthew 18:5 clearly does not depend on the child’s personal faith or religious identity.

Nor do I mention the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. In the Old Testament, there are many situations where the death penalty is prescribed for some crime, or when the people of Israel are led into battle against neighbouring tribes. This makes it clear the Old Testament commandment is understood in a qualified, nuanced way. Even interpreting it as “do not kill the innocent” is difficult when cities are put “under the ban” or in the context of the death of the firstborn children in Egypt before the Exodus. But Jesus started from “thou shalt not kill” and extended it to even expressing rage against one’s brother as a terrible sin to be avoided.

* Above, I state for brevity that our unique identity is settled at our conception. This is not strictly true in the extremely rare and exceptional case of true human chimeras where the final identity is not settled until two embryos fuse. But prior to that fusion, it would have been presumed the separate embryos would develop into two mature human persons, and they should have been treated as such. In the case of identical twins, everything to give identity was indeed present at the single-cell stage, except for the characteristic of being a twin, which was settled at the moment of division.


Great Expectations: Volunteer (Leadership)

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the Epiphany of the Lord, 2017.

volunteerWould you rather be a King or a Wise Man?

Today’s Gospel reading is not easy to translate into English. The New American Bible says the Christ-child was visited by “magi”, which is just an attempt to pronounce the Greek word in English. Our Jerusalem Bible calls them “wise men”. If you’ve been to any nativity plays in our schools, you’ve probably seen three kings with crowns – but nothing in the Gospel says they were kings, nor says how many visitors came; only that they brought three gifts. All that we know, then, is that a group of star-studying scholars from East of the Holy Land came bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Today, we have gathered to honour Christ in this church, carrying our own gifts – and the gifts I am referring to are the talents and abilities God has given us. Around the church, we have six banners representing our six values as a church, and one of them is to “Volunteer” – to use the gifts God has given us for the benefit of others.

It’s important that some of us volunteer outside the Church community, so that we can do good and show God’s love to the wider world. This makes it particularly appropriate that our “Volunteer” banner is near the exit – but I’ll talk about that another day.

It’s even more important that many of us volunteer for Church activities, because there’s no-one except us who are available to do the work of this church. Now, as we settle into 2017, I will invite all of you who volunteer for any parish role to renew your commitment to serve – as readers, extraordinary ministers of communion, and in the many other parish roles we have – we’ll do that at the end of our bidding prayers.

Today, I’d like to focus on a special kind of gift – the gift of being a leader. How many of you are directly responsible for managing other staff members or volunteers in the place where you work? How many of you are responsible for training colleagues when they start working alongside you? Quite a few – so many of us are comfortable at being leaders in the workplace.

But how many of us are comfortable with leading within the Church community? How many of you lead teams and train people for our parish?

One weakness of the Catholic Church is that we’ve become comfortable with leaving all the power in the hands of the parish priest. But one priest can’t directly manage lots of volunteers. We have many volunteers in this parish. On our parish database we have more than 120 people who have some kind of volunteer role – that’s fantastic, because it’s nearly half of the 300 people who come to Mass here on a typical weekend. But volunteers need leaders. When we have members of the parish who are comfortable leading projects, we become a strong and active parish – when everything gets left to the priest, we are throttled by a bottleneck.

Would you rather be a wise man or a king? Wisdom is a gift that God gives to us for particular circumstances, but all of us who are baptised share in the dignity of Christ the King – and whenever we take on a position of authority, in the Church, in the workplace or in our families, we live out our responsibility to be a king with Christ. It’s not without meaning that today’s psalm shows many kings coming to pay homage to one King, and a King paired with the son of a king.

We are called to be a community of leaders, carrying out the work of Christ our King – and the Gospels leave us in no doubt that God will expect us to make good use of the gifts we’ve been given, including gifts for leadership. In today’s reading from Ephesians, the writer of that letter knows that the gift of God’s grace he received was so he could bless other people. When Isaiah writes of “gifts being brought to Jerusalem”, that too has the poetic meaning of putting our gifts at the service of the Church.

Why is it, then, that so many of us, who have the right gifts to lead in the workplace, are reluctant to take responsibility for leading projects in our church community?

Is it that we’re worried about things going wrong?

Sometimes, bad consequences are unavoidable. Despite all their wisdom, the travellers from the East assumed that King Herod would be an ally to the new-born king. Instead, their visit to Herod caused many innocent children to be massacred. God knew this was unavoidable when He sent the star as a sign, yet He allowed it to happen. We mustn’t let unintended consequences stop us from doing good.

Is it that we feel we don’t know our faith well enough?

If we have professional jobs, it’s likely we’ve done full-time study into our early 20s before being given that level of responsibility, and we also take part in continuing professional training. It’s a fair comment, that we need to know our faith better. But that’s precisely why we’re offering opportunities to explore our faith this year – Alpha starting weekly on Tuesday, and our monthly Connect & Explore groups beginning the following week. I’m very excited about the kind of parish we can become when more of us get ready to be used as leaders!

Is there something in us resisting the invitation?

When I was a student worshipping at a university chaplaincy, it was sometimes my responsibility to organise the procession with bread and wine. I found that when I approached students I didn’t know personally, they were quite likely to politely refuse. But if I asked one of the young women to ask them, they would be much more likely to say yes. I can’t imagine why!

It’s easy to make excuses. In our human brokenness, we want to be asked personally, and we like a bit of positive feedback and encouragement from our leader. But that’s precisely why one priest can’t manage everything that goes on in a parish with 120 volunteers. I can give that support and feedback to a small group of leaders – and those leaders in turn can affirm those on their teams. Please don’t wait to be approached personally – recognise that the parish needs you and accept my invitation now. Prepare to be a parish leader!

Would you rather be a wise man or a king? Because of your baptism, you are already a king under Christ and with Christ. As for wisdom, training for volunteers is on offer. You are invited, and the Lord is expecting you. Is this the right time for you to say yes?