To Know the Mind of God!

SERMON FOR THE CATHOLIC COMMUNITY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ESSEX21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

I’m in Essex this morning because I’m travelling – I’ve had a holiday in France and I’ll be spending the coming week with the Sion Community in Brentwood. That means that I haven’t seen my cat for three weeks. I did try to explain to him that I was going to be away for a month, but I don’t think he understood – the best I could do was a special tickle behind the ears before I left.

We human beings can do something my cat can’t – we can use language to communicate ideas. But sometimes even language fails. St Paul never met Our Lord when he was preaching and teaching on earth – it was only after Christ had ascended into heaven that St Paul was given a deep and mysterious vision. Whatever Paul saw, it turned him from someone who attacked Christians into the Number One defender of Christ!

Today’s Second Reading is from a long letter which Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome – a community he had never visited in person. He’s just finished a long section pondering the ways God has tried to communicate with human beings. God called Abraham to be the father of a chosen people, Moses to liberate the Israelites from slavery, and raised up countless prophets to remind the Kings of Israel that they must keep their Covenant with God in order to benefit from divine protection. Then God changed the deal, sending Jesus; although some of the Jews recognised him as their long-awaited Messiah, many others turned against him. Now Paul has come to understand that the message of Jesus is not only for the Jews, but for all people!

“Who can know the mind of God?” asks St Paul. If we started with a blank piece of paper and tried to work out how God might have communicated with human beings, would we have come up with a story like that, taking us from Abraham to Christ? Probably not! And do we human beings have more hope of understanding God’s plans, than my cat can understand that I am going away for a month but then returning? The good news is that not only do we have the gift of language, God has stooped down to our level to speak to us! In the person of Jesus, God became man to speak to us in human words and human actions! Not only that, but sometimes God speaks to us individually, giving us a moment of clarity or deeper understanding through prayer!

Today’s Gospel gives us an example. “Who do people say I am?” asks Jesus. St Peter nails it – “You are the Christ!” How does Peter know? God-the-Father has planted that knowledge deep in his soul!

Although God reveals some things to us, we don’t have the full understanding of things as God sees them. Here’s an example which might help. My cat is very good at praying. Whenever he sees me, he asks for food! If it’s the right time, I feed him… but since he’s a rather fat cat, sometimes the answer to his prayer has to be “not right now”. I don’t think he understands why he sometimes receives what he asks for, but not always. But I do know he keeps on praying!

“Who can know the mind of God?” asks St Paul. Before I became a priest, I was a professional astronomer – I have a PhD in astrophysics – so I ought to mention the famous quote by Professor Stephen Hawking. In his book, A Brief History of Time, he concludes by saying that if we had a full explanation of “why it is that we and the universe exist”, we would “know the mind of God”. Later, Hawking clarified that he doesn’t believe in God, but if we knew the rules that govern the Universe, and why they work the way they do, we would know everything that could be known.

Actually, Hawking is half right. The universe around us clearly obeys ordered rules which are, at some deep level, TRUE. Since all truths are part of God (Jesus said “I am the Truth”) then to know the laws of the Universe is to know part of the mind of God. But what Hawking would admit himself, if you pushed him, is that even if we knew those laws fully, we could never predict exactly what the universe, the earth, or an individual human life would look like; within those laws there is space for random outcomes, due to quantum mechanics, and for results that can’t be computed accurately enough, due to what mathematicians call chaotic behaviour, so that each human story remains a mystery to be unfolded only in the telling.

“Who can be God’s counsellor?” asks St Paul. Sometimes our prayers do tend towards giving God advice. “Listen Lord, your servant is speaking!” Or when we pray for our loved ones, do we explain their situation and problems to God? I’ll let you into a secret – God knows their problems already, even the ones you don’t know about! But God still appreciates the act of love which is you taking time to talk about them.

Last Wednesday the universal church celebrated St Rose of Lima – like St Paul, she sometimes received mystical visions. One led her to a deep understanding of why God permits human beings to suffer and how God would use it for good. A similar understanding came to a local Englishwoman, Mother Julian of Norwich, who confidently assures us that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

It would be nice if there were a God who stopped all pain and suffering in this life. But there’s no earthly religion which offers that – if there were, we would have all joined up long ago! That leaves only two possibilities – either there is no god, or there is a God who exists alongside this world with all its pains and problems. I wasn’t intentionally looking for God when my granny died – I was 11 years old – but when I cried out to any god who might be there to take care of her soul, something deep and mysterious happened which allowed me to make a connection with Jesus, to become a Catholic, and in due course, to become a priest. There’s no time now to tell my story in depth, but I’d be happy to do so informally, after Mass.

We do, however, believe that God has a plan to deal with pain and suffering. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he left us with a promise that one day he will return to remake the world, reversing death and banishing tears – a belief so fundamental that we affirm it every time we say the Creed. I don’t know whether Christ will come again before the happy day next month when my cat discovers that I have come home! But we are invited, as friends of Christ, to spend this life plumbing the depths of God, so that we can experience greater joy when we meet God in the world to come. Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus, come!

Keep On Praying!

SERMON FOR THE PATRONAL FEAST OF ST MONICA – Wivenhoe, EssexProper Readings, plus Romans 11:33-36

I’m in Essex this morning because I’m travelling – I’ve had a holiday in France and I’ll be spending the coming week with the Sion Community in Brentwood. That means that I haven’t seen my cat for three weeks. I did try to explain to him that I was going to be away for a month, but I don’t think he understood – the best I could do was a special tickle behind the ears before I left.

We human beings can do something my cat can’t – we can use language to communicate ideas. But sometimes even language fails. St Paul never met Our Lord when he was preaching and teaching on earth – it was only after Christ had ascended into heaven that St Paul was given a deep and mysterious vision. Whatever Paul saw, it turned him from someone who attacked Christians into the Number One defender of Christ!

Today’s Second Reading is from a long letter which Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome – a community he had never visited in person. He’s just finished a long section pondering the ways God has tried to communicate with human beings. God first called the Jewish people to a special relationship with him, a covenant relationship, through Abraham, Moses, and countless prophets after the reign of King David. Then God sent Jesus; although some of the Jews recognised him as their long-awaited Messiah, many others turned against him. Now Paul has come to understand that the message of Jesus is not only for the Jews, but for all people!

“Who can know the mind of God?” asks St Paul. If we started with a blank piece of paper and tried to work out how God might have communicated with human beings, would we have come up with a story like that, taking us from Abraham to Christ? Probably not! And do we human beings have more hope of understanding God’s plans, than my cat can understand that I am going away for a month but then returning? The good news is that not only do we have the gift of language, God has stooped down to our level to speak to us! In the person of Jesus, God became man to speak to us in human words and human actions! Not only that, but sometimes God speaks to us individually, giving us a moment of clarity or deeper understanding through prayer!

Today we are celebrating a woman of prayer, St Monica, from whom this church community takes its name. She is most famous for the years she spent praying that her wayward son, Augustine, would become a faithful Christian. After many years she was rewarded – Augustine had a moment of clarity when God spoke to him, “Take and Read!” He picked up the scroll closest to hand, which was none other than St Paul’s Letter to the Romans! He was so convicted of the message that God was real, God loved him, and could forgive his wicked ways, that he was soon baptised as a Christian and went on to become perhaps the greatest scholar of the first Christian Millennium.

Today, though, we should focus not on the son but on the mother. St Monica was a great woman of faith, supporting a husband and two sons who didn’t always share her beliefs. She persevered, acting in faith when she could, and praying for the people she loved to come to know Jesus Christ, too.

“Who can be God’s counsellor?” asks St Paul. Sometimes our prayers do tend towards giving God advice. “Listen Lord, your servant is speaking!” Or when we pray for our loved ones, do we explain their situation and problems to God? I’ll let you into a secret – God knows their problems already, even the ones you don’t know about! But God still appreciates the act of love which is you taking time to talk about them.

Jesus taught us to persevere in praying for things, and St Monica is a perfect example of praying faithfully that other members of our family should come to know Christ. If we have grown tired of praying for our own family members and friends, today is an invitation to begin again. And if we have experienced disappointment in our prayers not being answered, we need to be humble enough to trust God’s timing.

Here’s an example which might help. My cat is very good at praying. Whenever he sees me, he asks for food! If it’s the right time, I feed him… but since he’s a rather fat cat, sometimes the answer to his prayer has to be “not right now”. I don’t think he understands why he sometimes receives what he asks for, but not always. But I do know he keeps on praying!

Our first reading today was a Jewish reflection on what makes an “ideal wife”. Sometimes the Bible teaches us values which must be held by all Christians in all cultures and circumstances – but in other places it reflects the values of the people at the time of writing. I’m not going to suggest that our first reading is a template for all the married ladies here this morning! But every Bible passage can be read in a spiritual wife, and a “wife” in the Bible can represent a church community, since the church is the Bride of Christ.

A patron saint’s day is a perfect opportunity for this church community to ask: “What kind of wife am I to Christ?” Are we a “chaste” community? That means, are we faithful to Jesus or do we let other values – money, sex or power – lead us astray? Are we, like St Monica, praying for our “prodigal sons” to return – and not only those in your blood family, but also those in your church family? And being a “silent” wife doesn’t mean that we keep schtum when we see problems in the community around us – but it does mean that it’s not our place to contradict our husband. If Christ, or the church leaders he has given us, ask us to do difficult things, our role is to do our best to fulfil them.

I’m very conscious today of being a visitor on a day which is central to the identity of this community. I don’t know the joys and sorrows which are the story of St Monica’s. So I can’t comment on any specific issues. I’ll be moving on – and that means there will be a happy day next month when my cat discovers that I have come home and probably gets an extra portion of food to celebrate! I will leave you with this question to ponder: If the Second Coming happened today, what would Our Lord find to correct, or to congratulate, in St Monica’s?

Save Us From the Fires of Hell

Homily at Christ the King for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year A.

“Pray and make sacrifices, because so many souls go to Hell…”

Those are not my words, but the words of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to St Jacinta Martos and her cousin, Lucia dos Santos.

One hundred years ago this weekend, these children, with Jacinta’s brother, St Francisco, saw a vision of the Virgin Mary while they were tending sheep outside the village of Fatima, in Portugal. It was to be the first of six visions spread over six months. In the course of those visions, Our Lady of Fatima showed the children a vision of Hell and promised to take them to Heaven. She warned that many souls were in danger of going to Hell because they were not leading the right kind of life. She asked the children to offer up sacrifices so that God would give to those souls the grace of conversion – enough grace to carry them all the way to Heaven.Grey statutes of the Fatima children, Jacinta (seated) and Francisco (standing_

The Gospel we’ve heard today is very familiar – it’s the one most commonly chosen for Catholic funerals. There’s a very positive message: Jesus has prepared a room in heaven for each person on earth. But that doesn’t guarantee that every soul will arrive in the place prepared for them. We never claim the soul of any person, other than an infant, goes directly to heaven until that person has been canonised – so we rejoice that the Church has canonised St Jacinta and St Francisco this weekend. At a funeral, we presume the soul is on the way to heaven, but may benefit from our prayers to help the soul pass through Purgatory more swiftly. The message of Fatima challenges us to pray another kind of prayer, a prayer which saves souls alive on earth today from going to Hell.

There are deep mysteries here. First of all, why does God need us to pray for sinners to be converted? Why doesn’t God just convert them?

Last weekend we marked Good Shepherd Sunday, a day to remember that Jesus called us to pray for the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to the harvest. The “labourers” can mean priests, but can also mean any Christian souls willing to invite other people to become members of the Church.

God has so much respect for us, as members of the body of Christ, that He invites us to be part of His great plan – His plan for more shepherds, and His plan for the sheep.

The second mystery is whether it can really be true that souls are in so much danger of going to Hell? Didn’t Jesus say in today’s Gospel that he had gone ahead of us to prepare the way to Heaven? Indeed he did – and he explained to St Thomas that the way to get there is to follow him!

Among people who are not church members, many today believe that this life on earth is all we’ve got, so we should make the most of it while we still can. We have a message for them – God has so much more in store!

Within the church, we have a bigger problem. Two whole generations of Catholics have grown up with the impression that God is a kindly grandpa who looks the other way when we choose to sin, and throws open the gates of heaven when we die. That’s false! That’s cherry-picking some bits of the Gospels. Yes, the Father of the prodigal son ran to meet him, but not until the son had come to his senses and resolved to go and apologise to his father!

Third, why does God need our sufferings? Today’s Scripture says we are a holy priesthood offering sacrifices to God, and that by doing so we build up God’s house. The greatest sacrifice of all was Jesus dying on the Cross – but because baptism makes us members of Christ’s body, we can offer own little sacrifices as our contribution to this work. This is the priestly work that ALL members of the church are called to undertake.

How do we do this? The children of Fatima were taught a prayer that they could say whenever they voluntarily accepted any hardship, rather than choosing to complain: “Oh my Jesus, it is for love of you and in reparation for sins against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”

Daily life will send us plenty of material for sacrifice. Sometimes, we have to sacrifice our pride to let well-meaning people help us. Sometimes we have to go the extra mile to do a favour which is not onerous but certainly inconvenient, helping a family member, friend, or stranger. Sometimes, life sends us physical aches and pains – these too can be material for sacrifice rather than complaint

Each of the three children of Fatima had a different calling. Lucia is not yet canonized. She lived until 2005, and her case is still being investigated: she remained on earth as a witness. Her two cousins both died in the Spanish ‘Flu which swept Europe before 1920. Our Lady said that she would take Jacinta to Heaven – and Francisco, who saw the vision but did not hear the words – would go to Heaven too, but first he would have to pray “many rosaries”!

So, my dear friends in Christ, let us not take Heaven for granted. We rejoice today that Jesus has opened the way – but to get there we must follow Him, and for others to get there, they must follow Him too. Let us not forget to pray that many people will indeed choose to start following Jesus on earth, and so find the way to their home in heaven. If we add daily sacrifices to our prayer, we will be doing something most pleasing to Our Lady – but we will only find out what great fruit our prayers bring when we reach that heavenly home prepared for us.

St Jacinta – pray for us!

St Francisco – pray for us!

Our Lady of Fatima – pray for us!

If You Really Loved Me…

Homily at the Celebrate Catholic Family Conference in Cardiff – Feast of St Catherine of Siena

What would you do if you really loved me?

That might seem like a strange question – especially to those of you who haven’t met me before today. Yet we seem very capable of providing other people with answers:

  • If you really loved me, you’d be ready on time.
  • If you really loved me, you’d remember my birthday.
  • If you really loved me, you’d call more often.

Let’s face it, none of us like being nagged into doing things by other people. And they clearly don’t understand the pressures I am under. That’s why I wasn’t ready, didn’t call, forgot your birthday. I do care, honest!

In fact, while we are busy telling other people how to love us, what about God?

  • If you really loved me, you wouldn’t have let my granny die yet.
  • If you really loved me, you’d have stopped me getting ill.
  • If you really loved me, you’d have kept my family together.

Whoa! Listen to the words of St John. “God is light, there is no darkness in him at all.”

In the Old Testament, the Book of Job tells the story of a man suddenly afflicted by every possible woe short of death. Job refuses to curse God but does put his complaint into a prayer. God’s only answer is to ask Job, “Can you create a universe and keep it running?”- it reminds me of the scene in the film Bruce Almighty where Bruce, who is standing in for God, tries to answer every prayer on earth with a Yes at the same time, and chaos breaks out.

Seems to me we’re not given the option of believing in a God who runs the world the way we would like it to be, Perhaps God can’t fix everything to everyone’s satisfaction. If God could only fix one thing for you, what would it be? Might it be death itself? What if God could fix things so we could live for ever in a place of happiness? What if God could find some way of forgiving our sins and opening the door to heaven?

Oh… hang on, wasn’t it Easter a couple of weeks ago? This sounds rather familiar.

Every time we celebrate Mass, at the heart of the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest declares: The Mystery of Faith! This is an invitation for us to declare that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. But it also reminds us of another mystery, that those of us gathered at the Lord’s table have been given this gift called faith! We are the “mere children” to whom Jesus showed his Father, not like the grown-up people who think they are too sophisticated to believe in God.

If you are familiar with C. S. Lewis’s Narnia chronicles you might remember the terrible phrase in the later books – “Susan was no longer a friend of Narnia”. A woman who had once believed in God had let her faith slip to take on the values of the world around her.

I can’t give you the gift of faith. But I am going to assume that because you are here at a Christian weekend, you have already received that gift, at least in part. That childlike part of your heart senses that God is all good, pure light, worthy of your faith – listen to it! And when you are tempted to blame God, repeat to yourself: “God is light, there is no darkness in him at all.”

It’s not for us to tell God how to love us. Rather, if God is who we think God is, God is the only One with the right to say to us, “If you really love me, here’s what I want you do so.” A yoke is a collar for steering a beast doing useful work. We cannot put on the yoke of Christ without accepting that God’s choices are better than ours. It’s when we take on the yoke of Christ that God truly becomes our king. Only then can we ask in prayer, “Lord, what do you want me to do?”

There was a woman, whose name was Catherine, whose heart asked that question with childlike simplicity. She was the 24th child in her family – though in the 1300s, half of those children didn’t survive for more than a few months. Her parents said, “If you really loved us, you’d marry your widowed brother-in-law.” but Catherine refused: she wanted to dedicate her virginity to Christ. God honoured her choice, and took her deeper. At the age of 16, she became an associate member of the Dominican religious order, and shut herself up at home to live a life of prayer. But at the age of 21, God spoke to her. “If you really love me, you’ll help the poor and needy.” Whatever deep experience she had of God, it propelled her out of her religious cell and into the midst of the sick and poor people of the city of Siena. It even propelled her into the world of politics, where most famously she called upon the Pope, then in exile in France, to have the courage to return to Rome!

This year’s Celebrate theme is “Seek first his kingdom”. St Catherine did – but it took time for God to prepare her for her final mission, and she was deeply misunderstood by her family along the way.

If you are going to seek God’s Kingdom, you need to set your own crown aside. You no longer have the right to tell anyone, except yourself, what they “ought” to do in the name of real love. Christ’s yoke is light – the actual Greek word in the Bible means something like “well-fitting”, tailor made, a yoke for your own personal circumstances. But it is still a yoke.

How can we put on the yoke of Christ? The first step might be to forgive God for not doing things your way. God cannot sin in the sense of “wrong doing”. God cannot be responsible for darkness. But the word “sin” can also mean to “lack something”, and God can lack the vision that you would have for God.

The second step is to ask how we need to change our expectation of other people. Our parents, our spouse, our parish priest, can’t always love us in the way we hope for. So we choose to forgive them not only for their actual faults, but for failing to give us everything we hoped for from them.

The third step is to ask how we need to change our expectation of ourselves. “Lord,what would you like me to do? Thy will be done, Thy kingdom come.” This is the prayer of everyone who seeks God’s will. We may find that God is asking us to get out of our comfort zone and do something practical – or even to talk about our faith with other people, in the hope they come to share it too!

One final thought. 18 years ago, St John Paul II named St Catherine as one of six patron saints of Europe. I wonder what thoughts that word, Europe, stirs up in you right now?

  • If you really loved me, you’d want my Polish wife to be secure.
  • If you really loved me, you’d want my son to have a good chance of getting a job.
  • If you really loved me, you’d get on with running the country without involving me in all these elections and referenda!

Each one of us who is baptised shares in the work of Christ the King. It is our privilege and duty in our British democracy to exercise our share of this Kingship by voting, and voting prayerfully. There are times for debate and times to unite. As a nation, we are given a window to choose; then we must make the best of the choice made by the majority, and do so with good will.

What would you do if you really loved me? The very word “love” is so rich that the possible answers range from “I’d pray for your ministry” to “I’d give you a hug”. But I’m not the important one here. It’s about Jesus. What would you do if you really loved him? Seek first his Kingdom!

I am grateful for some inspiration from the Huffington Post, where Dr Margaret Paul speaks of what people who love would or wouldn’t do, with the consoling message that if they won’t, it’s about them not you!

 

 

Dewi Sant

Homily at St Teilo’s Church for the Solemnity of St David, 2017

d094d0b0d0b2d0b8d0b4_d0a3d18dd0bbd18cd181d0bad0b8d0b9_28d0b8d0bad0bed0bdd0b029Timothy Rees, the Anglican Bishop of Llandaf, composed a hymn in honour of St David. It included the words: “Glorious in the roll of heroes shines the name of Dewi Sant.” The icon on the front of your order of service also has that name inscribed, faintly, at the top.

Dewi Sant! As we gather this evening to honour our patron saint, we must ask what lessons that glorious name holds for us. In fact, the name Dewi is a useful reminder for us of four values he would have us hold.

D is for DETAILS. Famously, in his last Sunday sermon before he died, David said: “Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed. Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.”

“Do the little things.” Our Christian faith is a way of life, which brings love into the smallest actions. Many centuries later, St Thérèse of Lisieux would also show us the “little way” of simple kindness. We read that in David’s monasteries there was a life of hard labour – the monks did not use oxen to pull the ploughs, but did so themselves. They ate only vegetables. Nevertheless, there was something so attractive about David’s way of life that he shone out among his contemporaries and we are telling his story 1500 years later. What was that something? Surely the love with which every simple action was imbued.

E is for the English Heresy. David famously found himself in dispute with the teachings attributed to the British monk Pelagius. Are we worthy of heaven because we “do the little things”? No! But it is all too easy to get drawn into the idea that God loves us because we do good, and this is sometimes called the “English heresy“. No! God loved us while we were still sinners, and sent Jesus to die for us. St Paul understood this clearly. He wrote to the Romans that this was the case, and in the letter to the Philippians we have just heard, Paul said: “I am no longer trying for perfection by my own efforts, the perfection that comes from the Law, but I want only the perfection that comes through faith in Christ.” Our Patron Saint, therefore, reminds us clearly of just how deeply God has loved us.

W is for the Waterman. In an age before water treatment plants, when people regularly drank beer or wine because they were free of bateria, David insisted on drinking only water. He probably took part in the Celtic custom of praying while standing in an icy cold river, too. Was he doing that to earn God’s friendship? No! As an opponent of the teachings of Pelagius, he would have known full well that living an ascetic life would not endear him to God more than any other person. But he might have sensed that living this way would help him grow in self-discipline, and would show solidarity with the poorest people who would come to his monastery seeking help. In this way, David is a perfect patron of our Catholic aspiration, to live simply, sustainably, and in solidarity with the poor.

I is for Inspiration. Today’s Gospel exhorts us to be salt for the earth and light for the world. Why did David ask us to be joyful and keep our faith? We are meant to inspire others. The world is a large place – we can’t be responsible for all of it. A patron saint reminds us that we are a particular people with a common heritage. (Even in the Bible, the Book of Revelation spoke of seven churches who each had their own angel.) We have a special responsibility to not only keep our faith, but to share it, in this place and nation which is our own. What will be the most powerful light to our nation? Joy!

Pope Francis understands this very well: in one sermon last year, he said: “The identification card of a Christian is joy: the joy of the Gospel, the joy of having been elected by Jesus, saved by Jesus, regenerated by Jesus.” Our current Pope can’t seem to stop talking about joy; he even wrote an Apostolic Letter called The Joy of the Gospel!

Dewi Sant confidently declared that he would “walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.” Do you share his confidence? When you die, are you sure of walking the same path as St David?

You can pay attention to the details. You can love people by doing little things. Rejoice!

Don’t fall into the English Heresy, but gaze deeply on the depths of God’s love. Even in your brokenness, Jesus loved you enough to die for you. Rejoice!

You might not be called to be a waterman, but you can live simply and tread lightly in 21st century Wales. In this way, you can build a better Wales for everyone. Rejoice.

You are called to be an inspiration to others. You can change other people’s lives for the better, by following the example of St David. Rejoice!

The last words of today’s Mass will be: Awn ymaith mewn tangnefedd i ogoneddu Duw yn ein bywydau – “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life” Our Mass does not end at the church door. Rather, you will be light to the world and salt for the earth when the name and the spirit of “Dewi Sant” shines forth in your words and actions. May the prayers of our patron saint go with you!

Dewi Sant – gweddi dros Gymru!

St David – pray for Wales!

Life After Death

Homily at St Paul’s for the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

“When I awake, I shall be filled with the sight of your glory!”recon

What does happen to us when we die? Many people who have been brought back from the brink of death talk about seeing a “light at the end of the tunnel”. Some report meeting God and being told it’s not their time yet. A few people have reported a vision which seems more like Hell than like Heaven.

It’s good to keep an open mind about these reports. Science suggests good reasons why a brain starved of oxygen might experience “tunnel vision” and human imagination is quite capable of wishful thinking or self-condemnation. Even so, there are certainly some powerful stories around, not least from an Anglican vicar I know who prayed for a 19-year-old teenager killed in a motorcycle accident… the boy woke up in the morgue the next morning having had such a powerful religious experience that he joined a church and got baptised soon afterwards!

If we put our trust in what God has said through the Bible, what can we be sure of? When our church leaders put together all the relevant bits of the Bible, what we know goes like this:

  • On the day we die, our souls are judged immediately by God – or some would say that we judge ourselves in comparison to the pure love we see in God. Either way, we can go in one of three directions.
    • For those truly repentant of their sins who do not need to be greatly purified, they go straight to heaven. These are the souls we celebrated on All Saint’s Day.
    • For those who call on God’s mercy but who need significant purification, they go to Purgatory until they are ready for heaven. Those are the souls we remember on All Soul’s Day, and for whom we offer Masses.
    • For those who have not chosen God’s mercy, God allows them to be separated from his loving presence, and this we call Hell.
  • We believe that Our Lord and Our Lady already have bodies in heaven – this is why we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus and the Assumption of Blessed Mary. The rest of us live there as souls without bodies. We may be full of questions about how that works – the Sadducees in today’s Gospel certainly were, and they tried to trip up Jesus. But he insisted that heaven was real, and left the details to God. Will husbands and wives be re-united in heaven? As long as they have accepted God’s mercy, yes – but not to live as a couple in the heavenly Jerusalem. Like all the saints, they will be members of the body of Christ. They will not love their earthly spouse any less; but the love they give to Jesus and receive in return from Jesus will be immeasurably greater than we can know in even the best marriage on earth.
  • One day in the future, this world as we know it will come to an end. Will that happen through a natural disaster or by God intervening in an amazing miracle? We don’t know. But we are so certain that this will happen that every Sunday in the Creed we assert: “We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” When this happens, God will raise every soul who has ever lived and give them a new and everlasting body – or for those who are still alive on earth when this happens, their earthly body will be transformed. This is the moment we call the Last Judgement. Those whose souls were already in Hell, or were alive at the end of the world but had not chosen God’s mercy, will be sent bodily into Hell. Everyone else will be welcomed into what the Bible calls the “new heaven and new earth”.

What Our Lord says today is an uncomfortable message if you are married, even more so if you are widowed. But… don’t panic! If you are in a second marriage, relax. There can be no jealously in heaven. You can hope to be there with both your earthly spouses, and there will be no unpleasantness.

Our Christian faith is not wishful thinking. If it were, we would believe that married couples live happily-ever-after in heaven, and the Sadduccees would have a valid point. So here is a useful check of where your faith comes from. If you believe in heaven because the alternative is too horrid to imagine, open your ears to Jesus! Believe in it because he rose from the dead. If you need to, ask him to increase your love for Him!

Today’s reading also reminds us that there is such a thing as a “fate worse than death”. When a human being is martyred, that is a tragedy for the family they leave behind, but a triumph in being faithful to God. As the familiar reading from Wisdom says, “their going seemed like a disaster, but they are at peace”. And remember that Leon Bloy once wrote, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”

Your loved ones are alive to God. The dead will rise again. Not only will you see them again, but you, and they, are destined to be given new and glorious bodies which will never perish. As for where that body goes, that’s up to the choices you make on earth. Whatever happens, we can be sure of this: “When we awake, we shall be filled with the sight of God’s glory!”

If you only knew!

CCRW-roundel

Homily given at Sunday Mass at the Weekend Conference run by the National Service Committee for Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Wales. 

“If you only you knew what God could do…”

Is that a threat or a promise?

Given the readings we’ve just heard from Scripture, we might not be too keen to find out what God can do. The Gospel has just warned us that we must enter by the narrow gate, because the easy way leads to destruction. Before that, the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that God disciplines his children. The first reading was a little more optimistic, reminding us that God will gather in “outsiders” – but if you’re an “insider” there’s little comfort for you in the Gospel!

As we pray together at this year’s conference, I sense that we’re feeling more vulnerable than usual. We’re conscious of all the uncertainties yet to be resolved around Britain’s ongoing relationship with Europe. We have a sense of the church being under attack, following the slaughter of a Catholic priest in France. We’re praying for more personal concerns, which might never make the news headlines but matter greatly in our families and in our communities. So in the midst of all our pain and confusion, what can God do for us?

God can forgive our sins.

It’s easy to hear the lesson from Hebrews and mishear the message as “God wants to punish us”. In fact, God seems slow to punish throughout the Bible. Even in the beginning, Adam and Eve were told that they would “certainly die” if they ate the forbidden fruit; but since the story has Adam live for another 900 years, death took its time coming. Ezekiel warned the wicked that they would die because of their sins – but if they repented they would live. God allows time for repentance rather than enacting punishment. Our faith assures us that on the Cross, Jesus accepted the price of all our sins, so that no Christian needs to be punished by God for anything.

What Hebrews actually says is that God can discipline us. “Discipline” comes from the same root as “disciple”, and reminds us that God wants to train us to be more like Jesus. The Holy Spirit does this by stirring up our conscience to recognise when our choices have not been in line with God’s will. God disciplines us through the gift of guilt.

Yes, guilt is a truly wonderful gift! If it succeeds in causing us to repent, we can receive total forgiveness of all our sins! Because this is the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis wants us to celebrate the open door of God’s mercy in a special way, making a pilgrimage to a Door of Mercy if we haven’t done so already.

What else can God do for us?

God can love us just as we are!

Yesterday we were reminded that Jesus “stands at the door and knocks”, but if we’re ashamed of our untidy lives, we fear to let him in. During the last fortnight, I’ve been on holiday, and I’ve visited several friends whose houses were in the midst of DIY or are home to small children. These houses were far from spick-and-span, but did that matter? No! I enjoyed spending time with my friends, and had they said “don’t come, the house is too messy”, I would have had a lonely holiday and they would have missed out on a happy visit. Our pride can be the greatest obstacle to experiencing what God can do for us. The same Jesus who spent time with tax collectors and prostitutes is not ashamed to spend time with you. It’s not for nothing that we have a song called Come As You Are.

What else can God do for us?

God can heal our bruises! 

Many of us carry wounds from our attempts to love others or to work for the church. Sometimes these wounds are self-inflicted, because we’ve had unreasonable hopes or set up impossibly high standards for ourselves. Other times, we’ve been hurt by our church leaders, by our friends, or by our family members. We may feel betrayed, rejected, or ignored. Sometimes that’s because other people really have treated us badly, or accused us falsely. At other times, it’s because we see other people through our own prejudices.

We keep falling into a well-known trap. We expect other people to meet our needs, and call on God to fix the flaws in our own character. But God only offers us insight and strength for us to choose to change our own character, and asks us to use our own resources to meet the needs of other people. It’s not easy for any of us to change a long-established pattern in our own behaviour, yet we pray hard for God to change the heart of a stubborn relative or, dare I say it, a parish priest who doesn’t jump to support charismatic prayer. Above all, we’re called to forgive everyone, whether we think they deserve it or not. That includes forgiving ourselves, for not being perfect, and forgiving God – not for doing anything wrong, but for graciously refusing to fit into our limited ideas of what God should do for us.

There’s an old saying that when we point the finger at someone, three fingers point back at us. So think of any relationship in your life which currently feels like a trial. Now ask yourself: “What’s my own contribution to making this relationship difficult?” What could you do differently to conduct that relationship with kindness, respect, and Christian love? Remember that we do not offer these things because the other person has earned them, but because Christ lives hidden inside every human person, however awkward.

On Friday evening, Steve, our new NSC Chair, had a sense in prayer of someone’s arms being upheld. That might remind us of Moses, being supported by Joshua and Caleb when he could no longer hold his arms aloft by his own strength. But it also points us towards the instruction in this letter to the Hebrews. When the Lord helps us see that our behaviour has not been great, we are not to throw ourselves a “pity party”. Rather, we must make a decision, a personal decision, to “hold up our limp arms, steady our trembling knees and smooth out the path we tread” – then each one of us shall receive God’s promise that what was injured will grow into health.

So enter by the narrow door. It’s a small door, and there’s no room for the baggage you’re carrying. There’s no room to carry a grudge against anyone else. There’s no room to carry your dreams for how you wish other people to treat you. There’s no room for the patterns of behaviour you know God is nagging you to leave behind. There’s not even room for the false god you’d like to carry with you – the god who would guarantee perfect health and freedom from difficulties for you and your loved ones. There’s only room to squeeze through to the presence of the true God, who allows you to be tested, though not more than you can bear.

If only you knew what you could do for God! Then you would rush to do what God asks. Each one of you is offering God something unique and irreplaceable, the gift of the love that God can bring into the world when you choose to become the very best version of yourself. The woman of Samaria hastened to tell the people of the village that she had met the Messiah. When Jesus frees you of your burdens, you too will rush to tell your friends and family of your new-found freedom in Christ. You may not even have to use words!

“If you only you knew what God could do…”

Is that a threat or a promise?

It’s a promise! It’s a promise that God will discipline us, that is teach us awareness of our own need to change for the better, so that we can leave behind whatever clings to us and enter through the narrow gate. So don’t be afraid. It is because God loves you too much to leave you as you are, that he invites you to this journey of transformation. As St Catherine of Siena said, “If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world ablaze!”

Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News!

Acknowledgement: Many of the ideas in this sermon come from reviewing the Freedom in Christ Discipleship Course.