The ART of Discernment

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

You’ll never believe what you’re about to learn in this sermon!

Discover THE three things you need to do to avoid being taken in!

Do I have your interest yet? Are you afraid of missing out? Stay tuned!

What I’ve just given you is clickbait. Don’t worry, I don’t normally preach like this. But you know what I’m talking about. You can’t go far on the internet before spotting links which get your attention. And you know what? Although you know you shouldn’t, you click on them! And yes, I click on them sometimes. Even Dr Mike Brooks admits he clicks on them sometimes – and he’s the psychologist who wrote the book on the dangers of clickbait!

Our brains are good at being tricked into wanting things that we don’t need or even like! When we start wanting something right in front of us – whether it’s a chocolate biscuit or the next YouTube video – it’s very easy to reach out for it. And we have even greater incentive if we feel afraid that we’d be missing out if we didn’t. Oh no! What if I don’t take this opportunity to discover which six saints (warning, this link is clickbait) were canonised by Pope Francis without the usual evidence for a miracle? Relax – nothing bad’s going to happen if you don’t find out.

Moses told the Israelites to expect a great prophet – but to beware, because false prophets would also rise up among them. Jesus was recognised as speaking as one who had authority, a true prophet. Today, we’re surrounded by many voices. Some claim to have the authority of Truth – and some claim to have the authority of God. We need to pause and ask ourselves: “Whose voice am I listening to?”

Clickbait is easy to recognise, though not so easy to resist. Other voices are more subtle. Have you ever had one of those chain emails or WhatsApp messages which begins: “My best friend’s aunt is a nurse in hospital X, and wants you to know what’s really going on…?” Be very careful. You trust your best friend to know whether their aunt is reliable. But as soon as the message gets forwarded, it’s no longer YOUR friend’s aunt, but someone else’s – so is your trust misplaced? A message like this plays on our fears. What are THEY trying to cover up? This must be the truth because it’s been sneaked out from under THEM!

Let’s pause and take stock here. We have two professions in our midst whose job is to root out the truth: scientists and journalists. Scientists make their money testing how physical or medical things work and gathering the evidence to back up what they say. But it’s not enough to be ‘just a scientist’. Even if someone’s a professor at a medical college, check what they do. A nutritionist or chemist has no more authority than me, with my physics degree, to speak about virus safety.

Journalists earn their pay by testing claims just like the message from the “aunt in the hospital”. If there is a cover-up, there’ll be a journalist breaking a story about it – all you have to do is run a quick search on the internet. The same applies to computer viruses – if you ever read that “Bill Gates says virus 21X is about to trash your computer for ever!” – just search. If Bill Gates really did say that, it’ll be on the record somewhere prominent. But I can guarantee what you’ll find – you’ll get a hit for one of those sites that list well known hoaxes and scams (this link is to a page by Sophos, one of the major providers of computer antivirus software).

As Christian believers, we might receive a message that a prophet or visionary has declared, in God’s name, that we are being asked to say certain prayers, or take certain actions to come under divine protection. Now that’s not impossible – the Israelites under Moses received a true warning to place their homes under the protection of the blood of the Passover Lamb. But again, we must be cautious. We can ask two questions – did the person actually say this? And is the source reliable? For instance, if you hear a claim that one of the Medjugorje visionaries had declared something – and I’m not making any statement here about whether Medjugorje is a place of true or false visions – the first thing you should do is check the official Medjugorje website. If the claim isn’t listed there, you can safely conclude it’s a false claim. Or if you’ve seen a YouTube video where an apparent “prophet” makes some pronouncement, check out that person’s credentials. Are they in good standing with their bishop or congregation leader? Do they have a reputation for receiving accurate prophecies which have blessed people? If the answer to either question is no, then relax – otherwise you’d be giving authority to fear instead of to God.

A few minutes ago, I promised three things you should do to avoid being taken in. And I’ve kept my promise! The ART of discernment – that’s A.R.T. – is to ask these questions:

  • Is it Authentic – in other words, was the claim was made by the person whose name is attached to it?
  • Is it Reliable – that is, does the person responsible have the authority to speak on this subject?
  • Is it Tested – have other journalists, scientists, or church leaders endorsed the claim?

The ART of discernment is only to accept what is Authentic, Reliable & Tested.

Friends, we live in a troubled and worried world; the last thing we need is unnecessary anxiety. Go back nearly 2000 years and there were people who wanted to tell you the ‘real but hidden story’ about Jesus: we call them gnostics. Many were taken in, driven by that same fear of missing out which haunts us today. As followers of Jesus, we should be people of true authority; I appeal to you not to forward any chain emails or WhatsApp messages unless you have checked them out and found them to be authentic. We know the Devil is a deceiver; do not serve his purposes! Be servants of Truth, and the authority of Christ will shine in you.

Thresholds and Foundations

Sherry Weddell famously introduced the Catholic world to the ‘thresholds of discipleship’ in her seminal work, Forming Intentional Disciples. But Sherry makes no secret of the fact that the thresholds were not her own invention, but the discovery of two evangelical Christians, Don Everts and Doug Schaupp. I have now had the opportunity to read their book, I Once Was Lost, and reflect on what further insights they bring to the great task of making disciples. Page numbers cited like this refer to the 2008 paperback edition. The publishers also offer relevant online resources.

Both Everts and Schaupp are university campus ministers in the USA, Everts working in Colorado and Schaupp in California.12 From the start of the 1990s they sensed a cultural shift: postmodern youth were no longer willing to accept claims about Jesus and Christianity made by authority figures; they now required authentic witnesses.15 After working with more than 2000 young people making the journey into Christian faith, they noticed a very predictable pattern of conversion, represented by the thresholds; despite taking time to debate possible counterexamples, Everts and Schaupp find that the thresholds continue to be a reliable description of the path of conversion. At the end of the book114 they offer a suggestion by Shannon Lamb that the pathway to a marriage could be used as analogy to committment to Christ, and I use that framework here. They also note that there are five stages in the growth of the grain used by Jesus in the parable of the sower: seed, stalk, head, full grain, ripe.21 Yet Jesus also spoke of the growth of grain as mysterious and unpredictable!18-19

Attraction (Trust)

We can only share the Gospel effectively in a relationship of trust – and the sad reality is that not everyone will come to trust us. We can work on being more open by learning not to defend our own viewpoint, become condescending or argue back; we must beware the temptaton to avoid other people or become so tender that we bruise easily.34-35

The book concludes by returning to the beginning: an evangelist must have a servant heart and must lovingly care for the people they come into relationship with. Only in a trusting relationship, earned by loving service, does it become possible to discern where an individual might be along the journey to Christ.133-134

Flirting with Jesus (Curiosity)

Non-Christians pass through different levels of curiosity. First comes awareness – they realise these is such a thing as Christians. Second comes engagement – a willingness to spend time with the Christians they trust, hearing what they have to say. The highest level is exchange – entering into dialogue and being willing to share their own opinons.52-53 We may note that evangelistic courses such as Alpha create the space precisely where people can share their own opinions.

There was a time when it was said, “Just behave kindly to people, and eventually they will ask you to give an account of what motivates you – then you can witness.” This no longer seems to work in the postmodern generation – Christians can easily get stuck in the box of being “kind people” whose kindness needs no further explanation. To get unstuck, we may need to be provocative. Use parables and seek to break out of conventional “either/or” scenarios. You may need to think out loud: “I wonder how many people around here think of spiritual things? I wonder how many people here pray?”56-60

Surviving the First Row (Openness to Change)

It is possible to create an event designed to promote openness. Think of the participants not as seekers but as skeptics or cynics. Such an event should not have overt worship music or prayer, but the arts may be used to communicate encounter with God; topical movies and stories can also be used. There should be clear leadership which presents something about who the real Jesus is, but this event shouldn’t have an altar call – the participants won’t be ready for it.79-80

Dating with a Purpose (Seeking)

A Seeker, in threshold language, is a person who is specifically asking questions about Jesus. This goes beyond general questions about God – a Seeker has heard the Christian claim that Jesus is our Teacher, God incarnate, and wishes to investigate this further. A true Seeker asks these questions with urgency, willing to pay the price which comes with a hard answer.86-88 Seekers can be appropriately exposed to the practices of believers: worship, Bible Study, prayer, church socials and service projects.85 But in service projects, there needs to be an explicit presentation of the Gospel; we cannot expect participants will join the dots for themselve and link the teaching of Jesus to the volunteers’ motivation.101

A possible format for a Seeker Group is a GIG: Group Investigating God. Consider offering a scripure passage (Gospels seem to work best) on a printed sheet where the investigator can highlight, circle, etc. Take 5 inutes to work on the sheet on your own, and then share what you highlighted.93 It is good to set out clear rules and expectations in a Seeker Group, such as:

  • You must grow!
  • Be curious; ask questions.
  • Share honestly.
  • Take risks.
  • Listen to others.

Seekers are likely to ask the question about why God allows suffering. The best response is generally not abstract philosophy but a personal testimony of how you have experienced God’s presence the midst of your own suffering. You may also find citing C. S. Lewis useful.91

An event aimed at true Seekers can appropriately include an Altar Call. But discernment is needed with each person who responds by coming forward. Who has actually committed their life to Jesus, and thereby crossed the fifth threshold? Who is simply declaring that they are interested in Jesus and want to know more, signalling that they are at the fourth?85

The Wedding (Intentional Discipleship)

Will you follow Jesus? No groom would get away with pledging to love his wife four days a week and trying to be there for her in hard times – he has to go all-in. There can be an urgency about challenging a Seeker to cross the line and make a committment before their questioning heart cools down. The challenge must be clear – not dressed up in obscuring church language, but not over-simmplified either. The challenge is not to “say a sinner’s prayer”. The challenge is to become a follower of Jesus, to seek His will and live by His commandments.112

Like the third threshold, this one can be surrounded by intense spiritual warfare. Potential converts may be gripped by a ‘fear of change’ which requires specific ministry.111

Surviving the Honeymoon

Following the key moment of making a personal commitment to Christ, there’s often a honeymoon period of around three weeks, followed by a deep spiritual attack. It is good for a discipler to intensively mentor a new Christian with 2-3 contacts a week for the first 6-8 weeks or so. The discipler should make it clear that such intensity is useful (in case it feels heavy) but does not set the pattern for the long term relationship (lest the new Christian expect enduring regular contact).126-129

In the early days after committing to Christ, the new convert will have many emotions to process and may wonder if they made an authentic decision. After these days, the discipler will need to help the new Christian form a good habit of regular prayer, Bible reading, witnessing when appropriate, serving others and taking their place in a worshipping community. Towards the end of the honeymoon, the discipler should ensure that the new Christian has a stable relationship with believers who will support their onward journey in that fellowship.

Catholics may note some similarity with the Mystagogia period from initiation at the Easter Vigil to the time around Pentecost seven weeks later. Insofar as there is a real change in the new Catholic’s life – access to the sacraments – and the cessation of a discipleship group (the RCIA fellowship) then attention to the new member is important. But we must also recognise that the sacraments of initiation celebrate publicly a decision to be a disciple of Christ which may have been made interiorly some months earlier – not fitting neatly with the date of Easter. It is equally important to offer spiritual mentorship at the time of personal conversion to Christ.

Made for Glory, By the Living Word

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

I wonder how much Jesus knew already when he called his first disciples?

Jesus was God-made-man. So how much of himself did he set aside so he could truly become one of us?

Think of one of those spy or science-fiction shows where a leading character goes undercover. Perhaps they have to use some pill or gadget to make themselves forget who they really are, so they can truly enter into their mission. Jesus is God’s Word made flesh, God speaking to us as a human being. He had to enter fully into our human existence to speak to us in ways that would fully connect with us. In Mark’s Gospel, we get the impression that Jesus needed to take time to pray – to get instructions from His Father – before making big decisions. John shows us a different picture of Jesus, where he seems to know everything in advance. Either way, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit made sure Jesus knew what he needed to know at the right time.

Anyway, here we see Jesus calling four fishermen to come and be fishers of men. Last week I said plenty about Andrew, so this week let’s focus on Peter, James and John – the three who become Jesus’ inner circle. They would have been young men, most likely in their late teens or early 20s – and in art John is usually shown as the youngest disciple, the only one without a beard. They didn’t know it yet, but they were being called to become famous in heaven, and so famous on earth that the whole world would be talking about these Galilean fishermen two thousand years later!

Jesus gave James and John a nickname – he called them the Sons of Thunder. Like every good prophecy, this name was an affirmation and a warning at the same time! Thunder is strength. Thunder is power! But thunder brings the danger of lightning, which is awfully destructive when it lands in the wrong place!

And yes, James and John were interested in power. They wanted to ask God to smite a town that refused to listen to Jesus – but the Master said “No Smiting!” With some help from their mother, they asked Jesus to “sit at his left and right” – to be senior ministers in his cabinet when he conquered the world! What Jesus offers them is not power, but glory. Power is something we to be received as a gift when God offers us, but glory comes in the way we joyfully accept the consequences of following Jesus.

For James, glory would come quickly. After Jesus died in the year 30 or 33 AD, he became a leading figure in the Church at Jerusalem. But in the year 44 he became the first of the apostles to be martyred – executed with a sword!

For John, glory would come more slowly. It seems he was the only one of the Twelve Apostles to die a natural death at a ripe old age; he took Mary, the Mother of Jesus, to live in Ephesus – in the country we call Turkey today. He preached constantly about our call to “love one another” and had the benefit of decades to ponder the meaning of the message of Jesus.

And then there’s Simon. Jesus gave him a nickname too – “The Rock”, or in Greek, petros. Before then, “Peter” wasn’t a word commonly used as a name. This prophetic name is a double-edged gift, too! A rock is a firm foundation to build on, an anchor of stability in a time of uncertainty. But it’s also an obstacle to stumble over and to weigh you down. Peter is known to us as a glorious failure! He jumped out of the boat, walked on water for a moment – and promptly sank! For one glorious moment he experienced the Father declaring that Jesus was the Messiah – and then gave in to the voice of the devil crying that Jesus mustn’t die for us! He told the Romans that his master wouldn’t pay tax – and then got sent to fish for a coin so he could pay it! He insisted most fervently that he would never deny Jesus – but before the cockerel crew three times, he denied point blank that he had ever known the man! O Peter, son of Jonah! The rock who tripped over yourself so many times, the most glorious failure in the history of the church… and such a great witness of the power of repentance!

Another Jonah preached in Nineveh, and something glorious happened! The people there repented! They changed their wicked ways, and said “Sorry” to God with prayer and fasting! The best glory stories in the Bible take place when God says to people “I want you despite your past; I have a future for you!” Our Peter is a hero not because of his successes but because he overcame his failures; the Risen Jesus appeared to him on the lakeshore and said: “Do you love me, Peter? Feed my sheep.” Eventually, around the year 64, Simon the fisherman would follow Jesus the carpenter to glory through a cross of wood – though legend has it, because of his sense of unworthiness, he asked to be crucified upside down.

To die for the Lord? To fail repeatedly, and have the courage to get up again each time? To live a long life of prayer and preaching? All of these are lives of glory. Whether or not the Lord who called those fisherman knew their entire future that day on the shores of Galilee, the Risen Lord who is calling you from heaven knows your full potential today.

Peter, James and John would spend time living with Jesus, the Living Word, before they would be ready to go on mission. In these days when there is less we can do in our free time, might we spend more time with the Word of God ourselves? Maybe in the past you’ve tried to start a Bible reading programme and failed. It’s never too late to start again!

I’ve asked members of Sion Community to say what Bible reading apps they’ve found useful and a list will be posted in the chat now. At the end of Mass, we’ll encourage you to choose one and let us know how you get on!


“The Great Adventure” – Catholic Bible with study aids

The Bible in a Year – podcasts by Fr Mike Schmitz

The God Who Speaks – resources from our bishops for the extended celebration of the “Year of the Word”

The Big Picture – 10 study sessions on DVD


(Bibles may not include Deuterocanonical Books in the Old Testament)

Bible in One Year – from the people who brought you Alpha

The Bible Project – videos, podcasts and weekly study plan

Cover to Cover, Bible study for small group or personal use, suitable for late teens and adults

She, He and Kids Read Truth – for women, men and children to study Scripture!

Questions, Questions!

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

What do you want?

Where do you live?

Who will you follow?

Today we are challenged by three questions. One was asked by Andrew the fisherman. He was hanging out in the desert with John the Baptist – not a great place for fishing – and there was excitement in the camp. For many months John had been preaching that we should get ready because God’s Kingdom was coming close. Yesterday, as John was baptising people, God had spoken to him – a man who had come for baptism was the long-awaited Chosen One, the Lamb of God. That man was still in that desert place, because as Andrew was standing there with John, the Baptist spotted him, and told Andrew: “That’s him! That’s the one God said was the promised Lamb!”

I don’t know how much time Andrew spent on his fishing boat in Galilee, and how much he spent in the desert with John – at “Bethany on the far side of the Jordan”. But Andrew at least was intrigued by this new teacher, God’s chosen one. So Andrew heads off in his direction… we are told he “followed him”, perhaps literally he chased after him. And Jesus sensed Andrew coming! So the Lord turns round and fixes his gaze upon Andrew, and the first question is asked: What do you want?

Was there ever a question so trivial and yet so deep? We want things to satisfy our passing needs, and we want things to quench our deepest desires. I want an ice cream! I want world peace! I want to live a life pleasing to God so I can be happy with him on earth and in heaven for all eternity! You could equally translate the words of Jesus as “What are you looking for?” – well, take a moment to ponder that. In your life right now, what are you looking for? What one thing would transform your life for the better right now? And don’t say “an end to covid-19”; we all want that, but this is a question about your personal needs in the midst of the world’s general needs. So yes, ask yourself now: What am I looking for? What do I want?

I wonder what Andrew was looking for? A Jewish rebellion to expel the Romans from the Holy Land? A teacher to show him how to live a truly good life? In a move worthy of Jesus himself, Andrew answers a question with a question! Had he taken time to prepare his opening line to the Holy One sent by God? Or was he caught unexpectedly when Jesus turned round? Either way, we know what he said to Jesus: Where do you live?

That’s an interesting question, but really it means “How do you live?” Jesus had lived in a number of places by that time… born into a manger… exiled to Egypt as a child… staying three days in Jerusalem’s Temple as a teenager… living in the house of Joseph the Carpenter as a young man… but now clearly he is staying somewhere nearby in the wilderness because at 4 pm he invites Andrew and the other, unnamed, disciple to spend ‘the rest of the day’ with him. I wonder if that ‘one day’ actually represents the forty days Jesus spent in the desert?

Meanwhile… Where do YOU live? That’s a sensitive question right now. Maybe you’re living alone and are tired of isolation. Maybe you’re living in a house where there’s tension between different residents. Maybe you have neighbours whose behaviour disturbs you. Maybe you’re living with someone vulnerable, but you still have to go out to work. All of these things weigh on us at this time.

Whatever Andrew saw, in that time he spent with Jesus he saw enough to make his mind up. Andrew chose to follow Jesus. More than that, he invited his brother, Simon, to meet Jesus too! This leads to our third question today, the one I would ask of you: Who do you follow?

These days, the people we follow are known as influencers, and the way many follow them is on social media. I checked who the ten most followed people were in the last year, and I discovered that they include one football player, six pop stars, one game reviewer and two reality TV personalities. Does it matter that Ronaldo wears Nike trainers, or that Selena Gomez uses Adidas? The brands concerned pay millions of dollars in the expectation that it matters a lot!

Jesus is a first-century influencer in a 21st Century world. We’re not going to rush to wear what Jesus wore or buy the things he bought. But we are invited to live by his values. If Jesus came to spend the rest of the day with you, what would he see? What would he ask you to do? How would he bring his love and peace into the place where you live? We don’t need to hear God’s voice audibly, the way Samuel did – we already know the message of Jesus, that we should bless those who irritate us and make peace wherever we can.

So what do you want, deep down? Ask Jesus to provide it!

Where do you live? What are the joys and sorrows of being in that place right now? Invite Jesus to come and dwell with you, and guide all you do there.

Who will you follow? If it’s Jesus, you’ll need to look beyond social media and meet him in his Word. I can only invite you, as Andrew invited Simon. Jesus would like you to spend some time living with him – why not pick up a Gospel, and come and see!