D Day

Homily at the Sion Community D-Weekend for Pentecost Sunday, 2019.

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal. While they waited, it was easy to talk about what they were going to do. But when the time came to go out and change the world for the better, would they be up for the challenge? They would need to be brave and courageous…

This week, many nations have been remembering the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. “D” stood for Decision – the Decision to send a mighty army through the beaches of France to overthrow the Nazi evil which had overtaken the heart of Europe. Most of the warriors who took part were young people – some hiding their true age so they could fight, though not yet deemed ‘adults’. Not only men died that day – women among the nursing corps also lost their lives. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young people knew they HAD to do it – the moral case to oppose the Nazis was overwhelming.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – within a month, a million allied warriors had landed in Normandy.
  3. They received signs of encouragement, from the words of Winston Churchill to the outrageous leadership of a bagpiper!

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal…

On the Day of Pentecost around AD 33, a group of young people were waiting in an Upper Room, the same room where Jesus had celebrated the Last Supper. It’s probable that the fishermen called by Jesus – Peter, Andrew, James and John – were in their twenties or possibly even teenagers. In today’s Gospel, we heard how Jesus appeared to them on Easter Sunday, wished them peace, and commanded them to receive the Holy Spirit. St Luke tells us how, 40 days after Easter, Jesus said goodbye – he would no longer be appearing regularly to his chosen followers – but told them to wait in Jersualem until they received power from God. In our first reading, from Acts, we learn that after 9 days of continuous prayer, the promised power came in the form of a mighty wind and tongues of fire. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young disciples knew they HAD to do it – Jesus their master had given them a command.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – not only the eleven apostles chosen by Jesus, but Mary and the other women who supported them, and very soon, the hundreds who responded and became baptised.
  3. They received signs of encouragement, because God’s power brought healings and words which touched lives.

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal. While they waited, it was easy to talk about what they were going to do. But when the time came to go out and change the world for the better, would they be up for the challenge? They would need to be brave and courageous…

Joshua’s army had been given its instructions. For seven days they were to march around Jericho; on the seventh day they should march seven times with the Ark of God’s Presence and then have their priests blow trumpets. No doubt the warriors and bearers of the Ark would have been young people. Joshua wasn’t so young any more, but God had chosen him because when he was a young man, sent to spy in the Promised Land, he had told Moses that although the land was full of formidable enemies, it would be easy to conquer with God’s help. Where most of the spies saw human problems, Joshua saw God’s solutions. Since then, he’d had to wait 40 years to see the children of Israel enter the Promised Land. But now it was time. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young people knew they HAD to do it – God’s power had led them to this moment.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – they were twelve tribes.
  3. They received signs of encouragement: Joshua had seen God’s power part the Egyptian Sea and the Jordan River, provide manna from heaven, and speak to Moses face-to-face.

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal…

On the Day of Pentecost in 2019, a group of young people were gathered in Brentwood. They had heard a message that “life with God is life in colour”. Some of them had personally experienced God touch their lives, with a deep peace that no human being can give. A few of them had even experienced what the Apostles had also known following the first Pentecost – they had prayed in tongues, received words of prophecy from God. But others among them doubted. And many wondered what their mission was to be.

For Joshua and for the D-Day troops, they had clear missions ahead of them. Joshua was to capture the city of Jericho and secure the Promised Land. The warriors of D-Day were to repel the Nazi troops and restore freedom to the nations of Europe. For the young people at the first Pentecost, their mission briefing was more general – they were to invite everyone in the world to become a follower of Jesus Christ – to become a Disciple.

Now what must you do to be a Disciple? We read in the same chapter of Acts that those who said “Yes” on the Day of Pentecost did four things. They were faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, to meeting together to support one another, to Holy Communion and to prayer.

If you want to know the Teaching of the Apostles, you will need to read the whole New Testament of the Bible. But I can sum it up for you briefly. Deal with your anger and live in peace with one another. Protect and cherish human life from conception to natural death. Forgive everyone, even before they ask. Never sleep with another person until you are part of a marriage blessed by God. And never, ever, say something is a rule while doing the opposite.

This teaching will stir up questions in your hearts. Part of what Jesus taught is quite acceptable to the world around us. Who can argue with helping people in need and keeping our promises? But other things will be out of step with today’s world. Some of you will be thinking “Yes! It feels right to go to Mass on Sunday, protect human life in the womb, and wait until marriage, but I don’t quite understand why.” Ask the questions! It’s OK to want to know more, and a good place to start is a book called YouCat.

Others among you will feel angry at some of these ideas. Can’t the old-fashioned Catholic Church get with the times? Well, no, we can’t. Our job is to do what we’ve done for 2000 years, to pass on the teaching of Jesus – and Jesus doesn’t change his mind. But if you’re angry, good! Talk about it with someone. Maybe it’s because following Jesus means you’ll have to disagree with some members of your family or close friends. That’s why Jesus wants to fill us with His Holy Spirit, to be brave and courageous. But if you’re like the milkshake with the film on top*, you’re not going to be an awesome milkshake…

Maybe all of this feels too much for you. You can see that other people on the D-Weekend have had a good time or enjoy the singing and praying. So I say to you: don’t feel pressured into doing anything you don’t want to do. But do ask some basic questions. Do you believe that something dramatic happened on that first Day of Pentecost? That people who knew Jesus received power to heal people and change lives for the better? That Jesus, uniquely among religious leaders, rose from the dead? And do these questions matter?

On the Day of Pentecost in 2019, a group of young people were gathered in Brentwood. They had heard a message that “life with God is life in colour”. Some of them had personally experienced God touch their lives, with a deep peace that no human being can give. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young people knew they HAD to take the next step – God was real, and was inviting them.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – they were four tribes, able to keep in touch through Sion Community and through social media.
  3. They received signs of encouragement: some of the young people had spoken publicly about how God had touched their lives.

God had a purpose for each of these young people. They couldn’t go until they got the signal – and God will give that in different ways, to do different tasks, when each young person is ready. While they waited, it was easy to talk about what they were going to do. But when the time came to go out and change the world for the better, would they be up for the challenge? It was D-Day. Decision Day. Disciple Day. They would need to be brave and courageous… but like Joshua, like the Apostles, if they made the right decision, God’s Holy Spirit would be with them. I wonder what decision they are going to make?


*During the weekend, an illustration was used with three glasses of milk. Film on top (no baptism – no openness to the Holy Spirit) – no milkshake. Powder in but not stirred? (Just baptised and confirmed, not interested.) Lumpy milkshake. Powder in and stirred (stir up the gifts of the Spirit given to you) – awesome milkshake.

Photo credits: D-DayPentecostJoshua.

The Mass of Glory

Sermon at the Sion Community Chapel for members of the Catholic Parishes of Burnham-on-Crouch and Maldon on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C.

What would God look like if you could see Him?

There’s a story about a little girl who was working very intently, drawing a picture.

Mum came up and said, “What’s that, darling?”

“It’s a picture of God!”

“But, darling, no-one know what God looks like!”

“They will when I’ve finished!”

I can’t help wondering what it will be like when we reach the new Jerusalem we see glimpsed in today’s Second Reading. Most members of the church have a sense that when we die, our souls go to be with God. But fewer of us grasp that for those who follow Jesus and have their sins forgiven, our final destiny is not to be disembodied souls floating in heaven, but raised up to everlasting bodies on the New Earth, that glorious Jerusalem where God lives among human beings. This morning we’ve been asking “How can I make the most of the rest of my life?” – but that’s just the curtain-raiser. How can we have the best possible experience of eternity? What I do know is if we live our life on Earth God’s way, the best is yet to come!

And I do wonder… What will it be like, when God Himself lives among us?

The Bible tells us that God is light; in God there is no darkness at all.

As a scientist, I can tell you that light is one of the purest forms of energy. It has a colour, a brightness and a direction of travel* – and that’s all there is to it!

I once saw a picture of two girls standing on a wet beach – their reflection was visible on the glistening sand, and they also cast a shadow. It struck me that this could be an image of God as Trinity – but I hesitated. I didn’t want to liken the Holy Spirit to a shadow. Then I realised – God was the surrounding light! The ‘original’ form of the girls I could see because light was reflecting off them. The ‘reflection’ I could see because this light was mirrored by the material world, just as Jesus is the human face of God. And what is a shadow if not a shape formed by light, except in that place where the light is not?

In Christian art, we show that a person is holy by surrounding their head with a halo of light. We have good reason for doing this. Moses was said to wear a veil because his face shone with the unbearable glory of God. Jesus himself showed his glory by literally glowing on the mountain of Transfiguration. It’s not unknown for saints through the ages to appear radiant on special occasions.

But today’s Gospel is pointing to something else. It says Jesus and His Father HAVE been glorified and they WILL be glorified. The recent glory is that Judas has betrayed Jesus, and this will be proven with a kiss. The coming glory is twofold: Jesus will die on the Cross and rise to everlasting life. Now, we can understand the Resurrection as glory, but what about Gethsemane and Golgotha, the mountains of agony and crucifixion? How can these moments of horror and darkness be any kind of glory?

I think the answer is twofold.

One is clearer in the language of the New Testament, which is Greek. The same word can mean both ‘glory’ and ‘fame’. Certainly what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane and upon the Cross of Calvary are famous – or shall we say notorious? – in human history.

But the other is that, in a strange way, these moments of utter darkness are illumined by the purest light.Image of the M87 Black Hole - a yellow ring thicker at the bottom surrounding a dark circle.

You may have seen the recent picture of a black hole at the heart of a nearby galaxy – a golden ring encompassing a heart of darkness.

As a scientist I can tell you that a black hole is also a pure form of energy. It’s nothing but mass – you might say, the ‘weight of glory’ – with all other details crushed away. Light falling into a black hole is converted from pure radiance to pure mass. So why do we see an incandescent ring? That light comes not from the black hole itself, but the death throes of the debris falling in. It is in that final agony of matter being crushed out of existence that the cry of pain becomes pure light, sending its signal across the Universe. Human history redounds with the memory of Christ’s agony in the Garden and his anguish upon the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Like a black hole, the Death of Jesus upon the Cross is a mystery hidden from human eyes. We do not see his descent to the realm of the dead, where the souls of all the God-fearing ancestors await with bated breath. We do not witness the moment when the Risen Christ enters once more into the realm of matter. We see only the death throes, and the ripples of what happened next, as they radiate out through space and time. The halo of light beckons us to attend to the mystery within! We are torn between turning our face from the horror and fixing our gaze upon the love it represents. “When I am lifted up [upon the Cross] I will draw all people to myself!” (+ See John 12:20-32.)

There are times in our lives when God asks us to surrender. Trust me! Let go! Don’t worry about looking foolish, or what your friends might think of you. Let me draw you in. You may be crushed. You may be changed. You may shine with my light in ways you do not expect. Let me take your pain. Let me take your sorrows. Let me take the rubbish which pollutes your life and draw it into an abyss from which it can never return. Let me fill you with my Holy Spirit, and with the gifts I have yet to release in your life.

For some of us, last night might have been a key moment when we freely gave to God those things that are stopping us from growing closer to Him, and received the gifts we need to take the next step. For others among us, it will have been the beginning of a struggle to let go and let God. Do not be afraid of the journey yet to come!

And how do we respond to God’s glory? This morning we were invited to “Come, ring out our joy to the Lord!” Every Mass is an invitation to rejoice. A Mass of a Sunday in Eastertide is a summons to celebrate! We have sung the song of the Christmas Angels, “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” Soon we will bring bread and wine to this altar. We will declare that we “lift up our hearts to the Lord”, and when I invite you to give thanks and praise, you will declare that it is right and just! We will sing another angel song – our “Holy Holy” comes from Isaiah’s vision of the six-winged seraphs praising God. When I raise up the Body and Blood of Christ, you will be witnesses to the hidden mystery of Jesus defeating Death and rising from the Tomb! When I invite you to “Behold the Lamb of God” I will be declaring that you have a reserved seat at the heavenly banquet, the wedding feast of the Lamb which will never end.

Are you feeling excited yet?

Did you ever stop to contemplate that this is what you are invited to every Sunday?

No-one knows what God looks like, because no-one has yet seen God – but that day will come at the end of time. You will see Him face to face, and there will be no more tears, no more sadness, no more mourning.

No-one knows what your life will look like when transformed by God’s light – but that day will come very soon, if you let God in.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit! As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. World without end. Amen!


+ We have to understand Jesus and His Father as a profound partnership, bound together by the Spirit which proceeds from each in turn. They have but a single aim, the salvation of the human race. Together they plan to pay the price of human sin. Together they agree that the Son will take upon himself human flesh, so he can experience mental anguish, physical torture, and a spiritual experience of disconnection from His Father in that moment of forsakenness upon the Cross. Outside the flow of human time, the Father’s love shines brightly in planning this rescue mission. Within our human history, the Son’s compassion for his fallen brothers and sisters burns brightly when he chooses, in the Garden, to be the victim for our sins, and then blazes upon the Cross when he abandons himself to the Father he can no longer sense. This is the hidden glory to which John’s Gospel points.


* For science purists, please note that I am including the polarization, orbital angular momentum and propagation vector under this one heading! Together with frequency (‘colour’) this fully defines an individual photon; and the ‘brightness’ is the summation of all the photons present on this trajectory.

Not a Fan

Homily at the Sion Community Men’s Weekend Retreat 20194th Sunday of Eastertide, Year C

Last Sunday, I did something I’ve never done before in my life – I went to a professional football match. My godson’s Dad was away on business, so I stepped into the life of a serious season ticket holder.

It turns out, I’m not a fan.

I don’t mean “a fan of the club who was playing” (and to avoid any unnecessary controversy, no, I’m not telling you who the team was). I mean that the way I am as a person, I am not built to be a fan.

How do football fans behave? They are quick to show their disdain. They don’t like the opposing team – obviously. They don’t like the match officials, and will criticise any decision which doesn’t give their own team the benefit of the doubt. But – and this is even more important – they are fickle friends to their own team. If you are a player, your fans are not supporting YOU – they are supporting their ideal of what they want their club to be. And if you fail to measure up to that impossible ideal – look out! It seems fans are only happy when their dream team scores a goal or at least is awarded a penalty.

I wonder how many of us are fans of Jesus Christ or our Heavenly Father?

As fans, we have our own ideas of how God should be running the universe. Then some natural disaster or personal tragedy takes place, and we are quick to criticise God’s way of doing things. We don’t stop supporting God, any more than a football fan would cease being loyal to their beloved team – but the relationship is one of impossible aspiration and interminable disappointment.

Here’s the thing. Jesus isn’t looking for fans. He’s looking for followers. And at the risk of sounding a little sheepish, we are called to be his sheep. If that sounds light and fluffy, think again. Why do shepherds keep sheep? For only two reasons. Some sheep are destined to be lambs to the slaughter. The rest are fleeced – time and time again.

Our Second Reading gives us a glimpse into heaven. We see a white-robed crowd who have passed through persecution. The Good Shepherd has not prevented these sheep from being attacked, assailed and assaulted. These lambs are in white raiment but they have been slaughtered for their faithfulness to the Shepherd. These are not fans – these are faithful followers. And what are they now doing? They are serving God in his heavenly sanctuary – they are waving palms, offering up psalms of praise. They are doing what today’s psalm commands – crying out and singing for joy. They are not booing for the opposition. They are not barracking the manager. Even though it cost them their earthly lives, they are ringing out their joy to the One they have been following, because they recognise the presence of perfect Truth, perfect Beauty and perfect Goodness.

Gentlemen, this is the moment where we have to take an honest look at ourselves in the light of God. There’s something in every male psyche which just wants to be in charge. In the workplace, we want to accumulate more power and a higher salary. Even among our friends, we might jockey for status. But as men of God, we have to face one thing that isn’t ever going to change – in the race for power, none of us is going to take God’s place as ruler of the universe. Our choice is to serve our true creator of heaven and earth – or to live the empty life of the self-made man who worships his own creator. Our choice is to become a lonely lord or a satisfied servant. No other ultimate destinations are available to us.

Few of us will face the ultimate test of martyrdom. Most of us will not be lambs to the slaughter, but sheep for the shearing. Scripture makes it clear time and time again that God has high expectations of us – he reaps where he has not sown, and expects a return on the talents entrusted to us. The Good Shepherd promises to walk with us through rain and shine, and protect us from our prowling Enemy – but not to keep us free from all hardship or injury. No, King David said “even if I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, you are with me” – when the Lord is my Shepherd he may lead me to still waters but he does so by difficult paths and he expects a fleece from me every so often. We may not want to be tied up, shorn, and left cold and naked afterwards, but such is the life of a sheep – and it is the Good Shepherd who inflicts this upon us.

Why, then, would you choose to follow such a shepherd? Because your only other option is to be a goat, to live independently and to die alone. Only this Good Shepherd can offer you eternal life. This is controversial. When Paul and Barnabas came to Antioch, almost the whole town gathered to hear what they had to say, but the question was – is Jesus the Way to Heaven? If this was true, it was not what the leaders of the Jewish community wanted to hear. But the pagans were open to the message. So we are told that Paul and Barnabas leave “shaking the dust from their feet” – and yet they have left behind new followers of Jesus who are rejoicing and experiencing the power and love of the Holy Spirit.

Gentleman, football requires not only fans but fielders – without players on the pitch, there is no game. But the players are at the mercy of the manager, who can buy and sell, make substitutions and select the squad. Jesus is not looking for fans. He is asking you to be his follower and to play the game. You might get injured in a tackle. Your playing career might end prematurely. The position of manager is not open to you, but if you accept the Good Shepherd as your manager, if you learn to listen to his voice on and off the pitch, then know that in the end, you will be on the winning team. It won’t be easy. There will be thrills and spills, rough and tumble. But only those who have played in the squad will carry off the prize. The transfer window is open. If you haven’t done so already, apply today. Join the Jerusalem Rams!

Do You Believe in Adoption?

Homily to members of the Sion Community 19th March 2019.

Do you believe in adoption?

Today, we celebrate St Joseph, the man who adopted Jesus, Son of Mary, as if he were his own flesh and blood.

It might seem curious to have our first reading, which promises that the line of King David will endure for ever. We know, in fact, that by the time we get to David’s grandson, the northern kingdom of Israel has broken away, leaving David’s heirs to rule over Jerusalem and Judah. Then came the deportation to Babylon, and there were no more kings in Israel. Both Matthew and Luke go to great pains to show us the family line leading from David to Joseph… and yet Joseph is not the blood-father of Jesus. All of this only matters if you believe in adoption.

Jesus becomes the ‘heir’ of David precisely because he is adopted by Joseph into the line of David. This might seem quite a weak link… but in fact, if you don’t believe in adoption, you can’t be a Christian. What happens in baptism? We become adopted into God’s family, and so become co-heirs with Christ, deserving to share in eternal life. This in turn makes all of us brothers and sisters.

One of the animal instincts we have, as human beings, is to preserve our own flesh and blood. Bloody battles have been fought – and the Anglican Church split from the Catholic Church! – so a man can ensure that his own son sits upon a throne. It takes the gift of grace we call divine love to rise above that, to welcome as family someone who is not your family.

In St Joseph’s day, a woman risked death by conceiving a child while unmarried. St Joseph risked great shame by sticking with Mary. Some scholars think that the reason Jesus was born at an inn, even though Nazareth was Joseph’s home town, was that his own family disowned him for sticking with Mary, for being faithful to God’s plan. We, too, may face hostility for being faithful to Christ, and this is why supporting each other as community is so crucial. We are called to live as brothers and sisters to one another, with ties stronger than blood.

I believe in adoption. I am a son of Abraham, even though I am not Jewish. I am a son of God, even though I’m no angel. I am a brother of Jesus, and a child of Mary, because they have invited me into their family, with a love that will never be revoked. I am your brother too… so let us love one another inspired by St Joseph. Adoptive father of Jesus: Pray for us!

Church History

Church History Teaching by Gareth Leyshon for Sion Formation, 27 Feb – 1 March 2019

All website links and contents are accurate as of 1 March 2019

All teaching slides in PowerPointX format: https://catholicpreacher.files.wordpress.com/2019/03/church-history-2019.pptx

All teaching slides in PDF format: https://catholicpreacher.files.wordpress.com/2019/03/church-history-2019.pdf

BBC Documentary on Byzantium – only available online until mid-March 2019

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03l2shc

 

“First Apology” of St Justin Martyr c. AD 150

Chapters 66 & 67

http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm

The “Didache” or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” possibly written around 65 – 80 A.D

CHAPTER 7-10

https://carm.org/didache

Didascalia Apostolorum, or the Catholic Teaching of the Twelve Apostles and Holy Disciples of Our Saviour – early 200s          

CHAPTER 16

http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didascalia.html

Letter of St Ignatius of Antioch to the Smyrnaeans, approx. AD 107

              Paragraphs 6-8

http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0109.htm

Anaphora (Eucharistic Prayer) from the Apostolic Tradition, probably AD 200-300

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anaphora_of_the_Apostolic_Tradition#Contents_of_the_Anaphora

Anaphora (Eucharistic Prayer) of Addi & Mari, probably in this form AD 200-300

http://liturgy.co.nz/anaphora-of-adai-and-mari

Animation of a Roman Basilica

The Gift of Jubilation by Terry Donahue  (Analysis of St Augustine on Jubilation)

http://www.sfspirit.org/articles/9709/article1.htm

The Sinfulness of the Conjugal Act in the Thought of Augustine of Hippo by Gareth Leyshon

http://www.drgareth.info/Augustine_on_Sex.pdf

St. Dominic       

http://www.op.org/en/content/st-dominic

Dominican Charism       

http://www.op.org/en/content/dominican-charism

Saint Francis of Assisi   

http://www.friar.org/about

St Francis (CFR perspective)      

https://www.cfrfranciscans.co.uk/our-holy-father-st-francis-blog

A concise history of the Franciscans in Britain

http://www.friar.org/our-heritage

Who are the Carmelites?           

http://www.carmelite.org/family/vocations/who-are-carmelites

A Brief History of The Carmelites

https://ocarm.org/en/content/ocarm/brief-history-carmelites

15 minute film about the Mediaeval Inquistion

The Diet of Worms

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther#Diet_of_Worms

A TIPTOE THROUGH TULIP – James Akin              

http://www.ewtn.com/library/answers/tulip.htm

The Original “Protestants”        

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protestation_at_Speyer

Tour of a Gothic Cathedral – short video

https://www.coursera.org/lecture/age-of-cathedrals/6-3-gothic-OY2se

Summary of Mgr Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm by Francis J. Ripley

Homiletic & Pastoral Review Feb 1951 pages 400-409

https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=8342

Litany of Repentance by the Catholic Church on the Day of Pardon in the Great Jubilee Year 2000

http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/documents/ns_lit_doc_20000312_prayer-day-pardon_en.html

What’s the Use of a Human Being?

Homily to members of the Sion Community 19th February 2019.

200 years ago, scientists were beginning to understand how to manipulate electricity. In the UK, Michael Faraday – the famous inaugurator of the Christmas Lectures – performed laboratory experiments; in America, the future president Benjamin Franklin developed the habit of flying kites in thunderstorms to see what the lightning would do. It is said that both of them were asked, on occasion, “What use is it?’ Faraday is rumoured to have replied “It’s as much use as a newborn baby!” More pragmatically, in the United States, when a politician asked after the use of this new-fangled electricity, Franklin said: “One day, Sir, you may tax it!”

Like so many good stories, this one is not exactly true, but it has grains of truth in it. The famous quote is actually from Faraday speaking about a newly discovered gas, which these days we call chlorine:

As an answer to those who are in the habit of saying to every new fact, “ What is its use ?” Dr. Franklin says to such, “What is the use of an infant?” The answer of the experimentalist would be, “It appeared to have no use, it was in its infantine and useless state; but having grown up to maturity, witness its powers, and see what endeavours to make it useful have done.”

This story helps us to understand the mind of a scientist. For the last 200 years, the Western world has definitely taken a scientific point of view concerning the world around us. Scientists don’t usually ask about the “purpose” of the things that they study. They may very well ask “How can we use it?” – but take humans out of the picture, and purpose is absent. Even those natural artefacts that seem to have a purpose can be explained in other ways. For example, a dry riverbed might seem to have the “purpose” of bringing water to the sea but equally we can say it is the natural consequence of water flow. When it rains, gravity causes water to find the lowest channel and carves out that channel as it goes along.

Even a crocodile bird, which cleans the teeth of crocodiles without getting eaten, might seem to serve a useful purpose but is just an example of how evolution by natural selection works. Natural systems rub against each other until they find ways of meshing together. It’s in the crocodile’s interest not to harm the bird because it benefits the creature’s dental health. Over generations, crocodiles eventually develop the instinct to leave the birds alone because there’s a mutual benefit there. The DNA blueprints for the two creatures have shaped each other.

We human beings, of course, are wired to look for purpose in the world. If you’re walking through the jungle and you see a vine lying on the ground, it’s a good idea for you to suspect that somebody fashioned it into a trap. Archaeologists, of course, looking at artefacts made by human beings, quite rightly ask for what purpose they were made. But that branch of science is the exception; in physics and chemistry and biology, it’s just not part of the way scientist thinks to ask about the purpose of an atom or an element or a living creature. Rather, the scientist ask: What properties does this have? What rules does it obey? And once we have an understanding, then: What can we do with it?

In today’s reading from Genesis, notice something that it’s easy to skip over. God says the world will be flooded because he is angry with human beings, who have not behaved in the upstanding way God demanded; but it seems God is also angry with plants and the animals and the whole of creation. Now these things cannot act morally! What have they done to incur God’s wrath? The underlying idea here is that the whole of the natural world exists for a very definite purpose, and that purpose as human beings. Without human beings loving and serving God, the whole of nature loses its raison d’être.

If Genesis is not a scientific account of how the world came to be, but is part of God’s word telling us something important, what is the message for us to take away? I think were meant to read that God has a purpose for the world – that God has a purpose for human beings. The old catechism put it very simply. Why did God make me? To love him and serve him and be happy with him in this world and the next. When Benedict XVI became Pope he made a clear statement:

We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. that every human being is loved by God and therefore ‘necessary’.

In yesterday’s Office of Readings, we had the famous passage from St Paul who says your body is not your own; your body belongs to the Lord. This was set to rap, to great effect, by the Franciscan friar Stan Fortuna! Check it out! This song is called The Zipper Zone and the message is clear. We are to use our bodies to serve the Lord!

This is a totally different perspective from our scientific world. Our scientific mindset says there is no intrinsic purpose to the human body, and we can treat our bodies in any way we like. The clear message of God’s Word is that our body is a gift given to us by God, and we are expected to use that gift to achieve God’s holy purposes.

The resources of this world, too, are given to us so that we can help one another. The two great commands are to love God and love our neighbour. Jesus above all taught us how to give of ourselves. If we take a utilitarian view of the world around us, we start asking which human beings are worth helping, especially where resources are limited. If we understand our true purpose then we look at things in a very different way!

I’d like to give the last word to St Thérèse of Lisieux. She was thwarted in her ambition to travel to a far country and become a missionary sister, but she realised that you could still support the missions by prayer. “I’ve discovered my purpose,” she exclaimed. “My purpose is to be in love in the heart of my mother, the church!”

The Gifts We’ve Been Given

Homily to the Members of Sion Community when the community gathered for the first time after Christmas (8 January 2019)

Look at the gifts we have been given!

This week, from Epiphany to the Baptism of the Lord, is a week to behold! – To behold, that is, the gifts we have been given.

In our liturgies this week, Mother Church holds together mysteries which show us who Jesus really is. Look at the gift of the child in the manger! Look at the gifts brought from the East, which tell us who he really is! Look at the power of God at work in Jesus, turning water into wine and multiplying loaves! These are called ‘theophanies’, showings of God’s presence and power.

In the Eastern churches, part of their liturgy is that just before the people come to Holy Communion, a minister will declare ‘God’s holy gift for God’s holy people’. So yes, today let’s look at the gifts we have been given! The gift of the Christ-child; the gift of Holy Communion; and not least, the holy gift of one another!

Today is our Community Christmas Day, when we will exchange gifts. Perhaps gift-giving loses some of its power when it is organised, or ‘expected’. A Christmas or birthday gift might lack the emotional impact of an unexpected gift given by a friend ‘just because’. But love is an act of our will, and even when we give gifts at an expected time or in an organised way, let’s not take for granted that the gift has been given. A wilful expression of generosity is always an act of love; and because of the way we organise our Christmas gift-giving, each individual gift is an expression of our love for all the members of our community.

Look at the gifts we have been given! Not least, our community, which is our gift of ourselves to one another. St John says, ‘let us love one another’, and that is part of our commitment in community; if our community means anything, it means an organised way of loving one another, as well as loving a world which needs to hear the Gospel anew. Today is also, in a way, our community ‘New Year’s Day’ as we begin again the work of mission. It is a day for new year resolutions. It is a day for making peace, and a fresh start, with any member with whom we need to build a bridge. Don’t put off until tomorrow a word of reconciliation which can be spoken today.

Look at the gifts we have been given! Not least the spiritual gifts and natural talents God has entrusted to each one of us. Jesus challenged the Apostles: ‘Give the people something to eat yourselves!’ This year, God will challenge us to give of ourselves, perhaps drawing out latent gifts or pushing us beyond our comfort zone. This is what love does – it goes beyond for God’s sake, and by going beyond it broadens our tent pegs so we can gain more ground for God. So this year, as an act of love, give of yourself. Have confidence in what you have to offer. Even if it is a small as two sardines, God can bless and multiply your offering, with astonishing results. But we must give of ourselves! Why not try volunteering for something new this week? As for me, this week I’ll be cooking a meal for 30 people for the first time!

Look at the gifts we have been given! We return to the greatest of all gifts, the gift of the infant Messiah. Our psalmist has declared that ‘All nations will fall prostrate’ before God. We do this, physically, on Christmas Day, by pausing and keeling at the words ‘was made man’. Since this is our Community Christmas, I am going to invite us to do the same thing today. If you wish to prostrate yourself rather than keeling, feel free to do so.

Look at the gifts we have been given! Before our Creed, let’s take a few moments in silence to decide how to respond to so much love!